By CAITLIN MURRAY
Call it a blessing and a curse: The Women’s World Cup this summer in Canada is going to siphon away some of the best players of the National Women’s Soccer League. But because of that, anything can happen.
With key international players out for a large chunk of time this summer and the depth of each club’s bench put to the test, the NWSL’s third season will hardly be predictable. To wit, the reigning champion FC Kansas City will likely see five of its players who also play for the U.S. Women’s National Team absent. That’s nearly half of their starters — a tough obstacle for any squad.
And when national team players do return from the World Cup, likely carrying some momentum from the attention the event will draw, it could kick the second-half of the season into high gear. Historically, the NWSL has been a tight competition and an influx of World Cup players should lead to some quickly changing fortunes and jostling in the standings.
The 2015 season kicks off Friday night, with the Houston Dash hosting the Washington Spirit, and eight of the league’s nine teams will play this weekend. All matches will be available to watch live on YouTube.
Here’s a breakdown of each team before opening weekend begins:
FC KANSAS CITY
HEAD COACH- Vlatko Andonovski
KEY LOSSES- Nikki Phillips, Katrina Gorry, Rafaelle Souza, Jenna Richmond
KEY ACQUISITIONS- Heather O’Reilly, Yael Averbuch, Shea Groom
OUTLOOK- For a team that has looked so dominant in the past two years, this year looks like a big question mark. No club in the NWSL has more USWNT players, which means the effects of international duty during the Women’s World Cup over the summer will hit FC Kansas City that much harder. Amy Rodriguez, Lauren Holiday, Becky Sauerbrunn and Heather O’Reilly are all virtual locks for the World Cup roster, and goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart could travel as a USWNT alternate.
The Blues have also seen a wave of players sidestep this season. Katrina Gorry of Australia and Rafaelle Souza of Brazil will focus on preparing for the World Cup. Nikki Phillips will spend 2015 starting a family. Jenna Richmond chose not to return. After trading to acquire Kate Deines, the defender announced her retirement from soccer. They will hope that Yael Averbuch, long a USWNT bubble player and veteran, will do better than she had with the Spirit last year and first-round draft pick Shea Groom will be ready for the pro level.
SEATTLE REIGN FC
HEAD COACH- Laura Harvey
KEY LOSSES- Sydney Leroux, Nahomi Kawasumi
KEY ACQUISITIONS- Amber Brooks, Merritt Mathias, Rachel Corsie
OUTLOOK– It seems that coach Laura Harvey’s overall view of her squad is the old adage: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Reign head into 2015 retaining most players, but perhaps even better, many of the team’s best players will not be pulled away for international duty. Kim Little of Scotland and Jess Fishlock of Wales will both have uninterrupted seasons since their national teams failed to qualify for Canada’s tournament. The very capable back four line of Elli Reed, Kendall Fletcher, Lauren Barnes and Stephanie Cox returns in tact.
The few losses the Reign face, though, are notable ones. Nahomi Kawasumi of Japan will not be returning after her loan last season, and the loss of her creative play-making and crossing ability will surely be felt. Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo will miss part of the season for the World Cup. Sydney Leroux arrives to the Flash with the expectation of a performing as a marquee striker, but Leroux had trouble making an impact in the Reign’s stacked attack, meaning her trade looks like a bigger gain for the Flash than it is a loss for the Reign.
RECORD LAST YEAR- 10-6-8
HEAD COACH- Paul Riley
KEY LOSSES- Veronica Boquete, Nikki Marshall, Amber Brooks, Jessica McDonald
KEY ACQUISITIONS- Jodie Taylor, McCall Zerboni, Kat Williamson
OUTLOOK- If there’s a coach with experience building a club roster in a World Cup year, it’s the Thorns’ Paul Riley. He led the Philadelphia Independence to the WPS final in 2011 and enters this season keenly aware of how the loss of key players will affect his team. It could be tough-going early for the Thorns though, which could create a hole difficult to dig out of later. Two top scorers, Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair, will have World Cup duty while team-leading scorer Jessica McDonald was traded away in the offseason for Jodie Taylor, who had the same number of goals last year as McDonald. Taylor is in England’s player pool and if she makes the World Cup roster, it could leave Riley without a focal point for the attack over the summer.
Look for the team to rely on Allie Long, last season’s No 2 goalscorer. After some time on the USWNT bubble, Long now looks like a long shot to make the World Cup roster, meaning she could be one of the best midfielders in the league while national team players are in Canada. The team’s biggest loss appears to be Veronica Boquete, the Spanish midfielder whose flashes of individual brilliance often made up for the out-of-sync Thorns midfield. The Thorns have found a capable workhorse to fill that slot in former Flash captain McCall Zerboni, who joined in the offseason. If Long and Zerboni can pair well, the Thorns will have better season than last.
HEAD COACH- Mark Parsons
KEY LOSSES- Jodie Taylor, Lisa De Vanna, Yael Averbuch, Lori Lindsey
KEY ACQUISITIONS- Angela Salem, Joanna Lohman, Kelsey Wys, Katherine Reynolds
OUTLOOK- World Cup absences will affect all teams in the NWSL, but how the Spirit’s defense will hold up over the summer is an open question. When the Spirit played without starting goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris last year, they struggled to get results. Harris, along with defender Ali Krieger, are certain locks for the USWNT’s World Cup squad. Coach Mark Parsons drafted a crop of defenders in Megan Oyster, Caprice Dydasco and Whitney Church, and it’s anyone’s guess how they will perform on the pro level in front of a relatively inexperienced backup goalkeeper, Kelsey Wys.
There’s also the issue of scoring goals. Together, Diana Matheson and Jodie Taylor accounted for more than half of the Spirit’s goals last season — and neither are set to return. Matheson enters the season recovering from tearing her ACL in the fall with a return date unknown and Taylor was traded to the Thorns. Australian striker Lisa De Vanna also will not return after finishing her season last year in rocky fashion — Parsons opted not to bring her to their playoff semifinal, hinting at issues with her attitude. Lori Lindsey has also retired. Instead, the Spirit will need to hope their scouting of attackers Estafania Banini from Argentina and Francisca Ordega from Nigeria was accurate, and turn again to Christine Nairn for long-range strikes.
CHICAGO RED STARS
HEAD COACH- Rory Dames
KEY LOSSES- Jackie Santacaterina, Julianne Sitch, Zakiya Bywaters
KEY ACQUISITIONS- Danielle Colaprico, Sofia Huerta
OUTLOOK- Last year, goalscoring did not come easy for the Red Stars. They had a solid roster that brought them just shy of the playoffs and a lack of key attacking pieces may have been the difference. Coach Rory Dames will be hoping his draft picks, striker Sofia Huerta and midfielder Danielle Colaprico click. Christen Press, the team’s top scorer last year despite joining late, will be pulled away for the World Cup, but should have enough time to lift the Red Stars into playoff position if the team holds up over the summer. Shannon Boxx, who has missed the better part of the past two years due to injury and pregnancy, is also back.
The Red Stars have just one goalkeeper right now, Karina LeBlanc. Given that LeBlanc is expected to be pulled away for the World Cup, expect a new goalkeeper signing soon — the Red Stars will open the season with a bye week. Dames is expected to bring in at least one other signing with the extra time before the Red Stars season begins.
SKY BLUE FC
RECORD LAST YEAR- 9-7-8
HEAD COACH- Jim Gabarra
KEY LOSSES- Sophie Schmidt, CoCo Goodson
KEY ACQUISITIONS- Sarah Killion, Samantha Kerr
OUTLOOK- Sky Blue is a team that has tended to spread its talent around rather than rely on one key player to do the goalscoring work. Unfortunately, that also means Sky Blue will be heavily impacted by this summer’s World Cup. The list of players from the U.S., Mexico, Australia and Canada likely to have interrupted seasons include Kelley O’Hara, Christie Rampone, Monica Ocampo, Samantha Kerr, Caitlin Foord and Jonelle Filigno. The question is whether Sky Blue can weather the World Cup and rebound enough in the second half of the year once their national team talent returns.
Midfielder Sarah Killion, the overall No. 2 pick in the college draft, will be thrown into the mix quickly and expected to perform immediately. She will have some help from forward Nadia Nadim, who tied O’Hara as the club’s leading scorer despite joining late in the season. Nadim will be with Sky Blue starting opening weekend, which will give the New Jersey-based club a boost. Midfielder Katy Freels and defender Lindsi Cuthshall both return after strong seasons with Sky Blue last year.
WESTERN NEW YORK FLASH
HEAD COACH- Aaran Lines
KEY LOSSES- Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd, McCall Zerboni, Samantha Kerr, Vicky Losada, Adriana Martín, Sonia Bermúdez
KEY ACQUISITIONS- Sydney Leroux, Whitney Engen, Becky Edwards, Amanda Frisbie, Samantha Mewis, Abby Dahlkemper, Toni Pressley
OUTLOOK- The most eventful offseason heading into 2015 may have been up in snowy Western New York. In a surprise decision, Abby Wambach announced last month she would sit the season out to focus on the USWNT. Last week, the rights to Wambach were sent to Seattle in exchange for Sydney Leroux, who expressed anger over the trade’s handling and vowed on-field revenge against the Reign. Coach Aaran Lines, for his part, seemed just as displeased with Wambach’s initial decision. After an anemic 2014 that saw the club miss the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, the Flash could use some of that fire.
Lines has expertly navigated World Cup years before — the Flash won the WPS championship in 2011. For this season, he traded away players two of the team’s most productive players, Carli Lloyd and Samantha Kerr — both who will be tied up with World Cup duties over the summer — and will rely on a younger group. Drafted rookies Samantha Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper should figure heavily into Lines’ plans. The Flash will need forward Jasmyne Spencer to continue her good form from her overseas loan with Sydney FC and hope Danish forward Camilla Kur fits in until Leroux and Ajara Nchout Njoya of Cameroon return from the World Cup.
RECORD LAST YEAR- 6-2-16
HEAD COACH- Tom Durkin
KEY LOSSES- Heather O’Reilly, Lianne Sanderson, Jazmine Reeves, Courtney Jones
KEY ACQUISITIONS- Kassey Kallman, Morgan Marlborough
OUTLOOK- It’s an obvious thing, but to win in soccer, a team has to score goals. What is not an obvious thing is where the Breakers’ goals are going to come from. The team’s top goalscorer last year was winger Heather O’Reilly, and she was traded away for draft picks defender Kassey Kallman and forward Morgan Marlborough. The team’s second-best scorer was forward Jazmine Reeves, who retired to work at Amazon. Their third best was forward Lianne Sanderson, who has departed for Arsenal Ladies. That means Kristie Mewis will return from a loan in Japan with a bigger burden to produce and Marlborough will have to settle in early. Four Brazilian internationals will join Boston, none of which are national team players: Bia, Ketlen, Suzane Pires, and Rafinha.
While offense is a question mark, to say that the Boston Breakers defense struggled last year is to put it kindly. The team allowed 53 goals in 22 matches, which was nine goals more than the next-worst defense. Kallman joins the Breakers from the team with the league’s best defense, FC Kansas City. Veteran and captain Cat Whitehill will also return. Whether coach Tom Durkin has done enough to address the back line for this year, however, will remain to be seen.
HEAD COACH- Randy Waldrum
KEY LOSSES- Whitney Engen, Becky Edwards
KEY ACQUISITIONS- Carli Lloyd, Stephanie Roche, Morgan Brian
OUTLOOK- The Houston Dash could’ve come in as an expansion team and shaken up the entire league. Instead, the club finished its inaugural season as an afterthought, coming in last place and scoring a paltry 23 goals in 22 games played. Coach Randy Waldrum will point out that by the time the Dash were announced as an expansion team for 2014, he had around four months to prepare before their first match — a condensed timeline to build a roster, to be sure. But some of his expansion draft choices tended toward players he had coached before and not ones that had been performing well in their NWSL clubs. Don’t expect that mistake again.
Waldrum & Co. have rolled the dice on some high-profile trades, including the acquisition of Carli Lloyd, a player known for her ability to instantly change games with her rocket strikes. Stephanie Roche is coming in from Ireland, fresh off a year that saw her profile skyrocket after landing as runner-up for the 2014 FIFA Puskás Award. Morgan Brian, the first-year rookie who has positioned herself as a lock for the USWNT’s World Cup roster, was the overall No. 1 draft pick and will likely be the engine of the Dash’s attack. Those pick-ups, along with Rachael Axon, Ashley Nick and Niki Cross, should make the Dash a team to watch for 2015.
What are your thoughts going into the 2015 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.