The 2014 NWSL season is upon us, after the woefully long seven-month offseason. All week we’ve previewed the teams, breaking down strengths and weaknesses of all nine clubs. Click here for team-by-team previews.
Now we make our predictions on who will lift the trophy at the end of August. Here’s how some of The Equalizer staff sees the season shaking out:
Jeff Kassouf —
1. Portland – At full strength, the Thorns will look like one of the best club teams in the world. That qualifying characteristic is critical, though, with Alex Morgan out at least the first two months and Rachel Van Hollebeke’s status could be up in the air after Thursday’s injury early in the USA-China match. Still, this team should be fun to watch…and very successful.
2. Seattle – Adding to the intrigue is the massive makeover to the north. Seattle Reign FC have the personnel in place to rival any team, and should be serious title contenders. The Reign do come highly hyped after a big offseason, and thus carry an unusual pressure for a team that finished second-from-bottom last year. Like Portland, defending will be the issue, so there could be some real shootouts in the Pacific Northwest.
3. FC Kansas City – Losing Desiree Scott is a big blow, and Lauren Sesselmann was integral to the back line that was second-best in the league statistically in 2013. But the fundamental system remains for an FC Kansas City team that played the league’s best brand of soccer last year. Nikki Phillips and Kassey Kallman should do well filling in defensively. Going forward, 2013 MVP Lauren Holiday must stay in top form, while Erika Tymrak needs a strong sophomore campaign.
4. Western New York – The defensive concerns for the Flash are very real after losing their starting goalkeeper and half of their back four, but there’s enough firepower going forward to match anyone in the league. That will be enough to get the Flash into the playoffs, where anything is possible.
5. Chicago Red Stars – Like they did with their German players last year, the Red Stars have to wait until midseason for reinforcements. Those will come aplenty, with U.S. striker Christen Press, Canadian Melissa Tancredi and center back Taryn Hemmings – recovering from ACL surgery – all coming back mid-season. By then, though, it could be slightly too late for playoff hopes.
6. Sky Blue FC – Once again, Sky Blue FC is a dark horse that could sneak into the playoffs. The New Jersey-based club is defensively sound, but could be overly reliant on the midfield to help Monica Ocampo and Japanese forward Nanase Kiryu score. How quickly Maya Hayes adapts to the league will be critical as well.
7. Washington – The only way to go is up for the Spirit, and they certainly look better on paper than their dismal 2013 that saw them claim 14 points from 22 games, scoring only 16 goals. Crystal Dunn and Yael Averbuch are welcomed additions for a Spirit team that will be better, but likely not in playoff contention.
8. Boston – Lisa De Vanna’s scoring output will be critical for the Breakers. She needs to complement Lianne Sanderson and Heather O’Reilly, who will give the Breakers options from slightly deeper-lying positions. But she won’t fill the void left by Sydney Leroux, and the back line is still getting sorted out under new coach Tom Durkin.
9. Houston – In a league featuring teams that have added serious firepower – especially Portland and Seattle – the expansion Dash will struggle to score. And although their back line will be sound with Whitney Engen in charge, she and Meghan Klingenberg won’t arrive until mid-season. By then, a slow start might be too much to overcome.
Final: Update – yea, sure, Portland-Seattle final then. I’ll be a dreamer. Thorns win at and get their wish of a title at home.
Dan Lauletta —
1. Portland – As league champions go, it was a strange offseason, but even with Alex Morgan on the shelf for the foreseeable future they should be good enough to ride that wave to the top of the table. New coach Paul Riley figures to instill a more relaxed attitude that should unlock better soccer from a talented group.
2. Seattle – This is the first team over two NWSL seasons that is deep enough to withstand injuries and national team absences. They are also good. Full seasons from Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo plus a reinvigorated Stephanie Cox will help bring playoff soccer to downtown Seattle.
3. Western New York – Aaran Lines is at it again, flying below the radar putting his team together with quiet efficiency. Estelle Johnson and Sarah Huffman are gone and Adrianna Franch is out for the season injured, but Lines managed to acquire Lydia Williams to keep goal and Kat Williamson to play center back. Those shrewd maneuvers will keep the Flash in the first four.
4. Chicago Red Stars – Once this team gets going it is going to be very good. They will start the season shorthanded, but no team outplayed its talent late last season like the Red Stars who were quietly 8-4-4 after June on. If they can steal some early points, late adds like Christen Press and Melissa Tancredi will see them into the postseason.
5. FC Kansas City – In some ways they’ll be better, such as the influx of more traditional forwards like Amy Rodriguez. In others they’ll be worse off like losing Desiree Scott and half of the back four that finished out 2013. Ultimately, though, their glut of U.S. pool players missing key time will be too much to handle and the Blues will slip outside the playoffs.
6. Washington – Markedly better club will move up the ladder but fall a bit short of the playoffs. A Jordan Angeli-Yael Averbuch-Christine Nairn-Diana Matheson quartet in the middle of the park could be deadly and they will need a smooth transition from Jodie Taylor and some consistency from Renae Cuellar. If all these things happen and the defense clicks they can certainly finish higher than this.
7. Houston – The first-year club has the makings of a quality side, but there is too much missing at the outset to figure on them being contenders. Whitney Engen, Meghan Klingenberg, Lauren Sesselmann, Aya Sameshima, and Rafaelle Souza are all out for significant parts of the season or more. Look out for a big 2015 for what should be a well-supported club.
8. Sky Blue FC – This should be a sound defensive club, but unless they make good on a goal scorer with the international spot acquired in the Lisa De Vanna trade, it will not be enough to make up for a lack of finishers up top. They also figure to be without Christie Rampone for several games during the heart of the season.
9. Boston Breakers – They’ll be quick, especially on the outside, but can they will be hard-pressed to replace the 11 goals Sydney Leroux took with her to Seattle. They are also scrambling at center back where Courtney Jones looks to be the initial choice to partner Cat Whitehill after the untimely departure of Kia McNeill. A long season looms in Beantown.
Final: After dual upsets in the Pacific Northwest the Flash host yet another final and beat the Red Stars to give Abby Wambach the title in front of her hometown fans.
Jen Gordon —
1. Kansas City – The team that swept the postseason awards will win the regular season championship. Yes, they’ll certainly miss Desiree Scott, but the addition of Nikki Phillips and Kassey Kallman should help solidify a backline that became leaky around the 80 minute mark of games last season. Ultimately, Kansas City experienced less change in the offseason and that will help them grab points early in the season will other top teams are still adjusting.
2. Seattle – It’s hard to imagine that a team with Sydney Leroux, Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo won’t be competing for a championship in August. The Reign will rack up plenty of goals given how loaded the team on the offensive side of the ball. The defense is less impressive but Stephanie Cox and company would have to be nothing short of horrific to keep this team out of the playoffs.
3. Portland – The Thorns made many of moves in the offseason but hiring Paul Riley as head coach was probably the biggest. Riley knows how to get the most from his players and he now has arguably the best roster in the league to work with. The big question in Portland is: How long will Riley actually have his strongest players? Not having all his stars to start the season will ultimately cost them the regular season championship.
4. Western New York – The back line was the big question last year and it turned out to be one of the best in the league. The Flash have lost two members of that back line, Alex Sahlen and Estelle Johnson. The absence of Sahlen and Johnson, combined with the loss of goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, will put the defense once again in question.
5. Washington – On paper this squad is light-years ahead of where it was a year ago. Parsons’ new players and new tactics will make the squad competitive. The team, however, is still missing is a big-time forward. Can Jodie Taylor be this player?
6. Chicago – Without Christen Press and Melissa Tancredi to start the year, the Red Stars will be dependent on young forwards for goals. Last year showed that this isn’t exactly a recipe for success.
7. Houston – While they have one the best center midfield pairings in the league with Becky Edwards and Brittany Bock, the team will rely heavily on young talent to score. The late arrival of Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg will help the team’s inaugural campaign.
8. Sky Blue FC – Sky Blue will have to rely on their defense to have any chance of winning games. Even if they’re able to keep other sides off the scoreboard, it’s tough to see how the team will score goals. With Lisa De Vanna out of the picture, it appears that the Sky Blue offense will be highly dependent on mercurial striker Monica Ocampo.
9. Boston – While the team has added De Vanna, they’ve also lost Leroux (now in Seattle) and Kyah Simon (out with torn ACL). The team still has midfielders to generate offense, and they’ll likely need first round draft pick Nkem Ezurike to contribute early and often to compete. The real dagger for Boston will be the schedule. For a solid month in June and July, the Breakers will be on the road which will likely take a toll.
Final: Portland over Kansas City. Once again, Portland’s star studded offense will secure a championship on the road. Kansas City will have a solid defense but they’ll be out gunned. Once Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Veronica Boquete are at Paul Riley’s disposal, Portland will be difficult to top.
Tim Grainey —
1. Portland — New head coach Paul Riley will lead Veronica Boquete, Nadine Angerer, Christine Sinclair, Alex Morgan and company to their second league crown.
2. Western New York — Abby Wambach will spearhead the attack though their defense may struggle without Adrianna Franch in goal.
3. FC Kansas City — A revitalized Amy Rodriguez will work well with core U.S. national team players — Lauren Holiday, Amy LePielbet (when healthy) and Becky Sauerbrunn.
4. Seattle — The addition of Nahomi Kawasumi from Japan, Kim Little from Scotland and Sydney Leroux from Boston will fire a much improved Reign front line to the playoffs.
5. Boston — Lisa DeVanna will work well with Lianne Sanderson but the Breakers will just miss the postseason. Look for a breakout rookie year from Mollie Pathman.
6. Washington — The Spirit will be much improved in 2014, with strong additions like Crystal Dunn (possibly in defense), Christine Nairn and Yael Averbuch in midfield and Jodie Taylor up front.
7. Sky Blue FC — A Jim Gabarra-coached team should never be written off but this could be a down year for Sky Blue. Cami Levin in a defensive role will work well with Christie Rampone. Maya Hayes and Jonelle Filigno are good forwards but may struggle in their rookie season. Monica Ocampo can’t carry the offense alone.
8. Houston — Loaded with rookies, they won’t give up many goals but will struggle to score; look for a late-season winning-streak that should provide momentum for 2015.
9. Chicago — Will continue to draw poorly and provide their fans with inconsistent play. They need an infusion of money and a different player model to compete, as local supporting players are not cutting it in an improving league. Christen Press’ addition mid-season might not be enough to save their season.
Final: Paul Riley finally wins a professional league title as the Thorns defeat FC Kansas City 3-1.