Remember soccer? Let’s talk about it for a bit. We’re about three weeks from really heating up on the women’s side with the SheBelieves Cup starting March 1 followed by NWSL preseason and a regular season highlighted by the new business and television deal with A+E Networks and Lifetime.
We still have a long way to go before we see the 20-woman rosters that will kick off NWSL season in mid-April, but it’s not too early to start speculating about which players will have important roles. So let’s go through the teams and look at one player on each whose performance will be key to that team achieving its goals. Note this is not a list of the best players, best acquisitions, or anything else besides a player I think could swing each team one way or another.
Boston Breakers, Megan Oyster: A year ago Oyster looked to be on the fast track to a USWNT call-up, but a few spotty performances before the Olympic break led to her benching on a deep Washington Spirit team. She ended on a personal high note with a surprise start and strong performance in the NWSL Championship but was ultimately part of the purge at the Plex.
In Boston, Oyster will be vital if the Breakers are to be respectable in the back, something they rarely were in 2016. This is especially true in light of Monday’s news that Whitney Engen will not be back in NWSL this year. Oyster at her best reads the game well, is calm on the ball and can distribute. If that happens and she can shepherd the rest of the back four, the Breakers will have a chance to keep more matches close so their newfound plethora of attacking players can put their stamp on the game and the season.
Chicago Red Stars, Sofia Huerta: One of the more under-the-radar pushes late in the second half of last season came from Sofia Huerta. The sometimes up-and-down forward was one of the reasons the Red Stars finished so strong emerging as a solid attacking alternative to Christen Press.
The Red Stars are right on the verge of being a trophy team but there were too many times last season when Press was the only forward who was going to score. Huerta is part of a bigger group that includes Stephanie McCaffrey and Jen Hoy, but Huerta probably has the most upside and potential.
FC Kansas City, Christina Gibbons: A rookie? Yes, a rookie. Gibbons figures to plug right in as an outside back and help the Blues generate better two-way play from that spot. After Leigh Ann Robinson retired and Rebecca Moros was traded, outside back became something of a flat position for FCKC in what was their first ever non-playoff season in 2016. We don’t want to put too much pressure on Gibbons, but she was in January camp with the U.S. and will have Becky Sauerbrunn to lean on in Kansas City.
This easily could have been an Amy Rodriguez/Sydney Leroux combo play since that pair are on the way back from maternity leave to try and bolster a team that struggled to score last season. But steadier two-way play from the outside back position will help FC Kansas City get back to a more effective version of Vlatko ball.
Houston Dash, Kealia Ohai: The most important element of the 2017 Dash is probably how well the back line clicks, but for one individual player I landed on Ohai. Her 2016 was unique in that she couldn’t score on a bet in the first half, and then all of a sudden could barely go a full game without a goal. By season’s end Ohai was on the Best XI and suiting up for the national team. She began 2017 in Jill Ellis’s January camp.
The two questions for Ohai are—can she contribute over the course of an entire season, especially when a tear like the one from last year is unlikely? And can she find any magic with Carli Lloyd? If both of these things happen, the Dash will become the type of team that is next to impossible to put away, and it will allow them to spend much more time on the front foot. Sure if the back line combination falters it won’t likely matter, but in terms of one specific player I’d call Ohai the most important.
North Carolina Courage, Sam Mewis: This was a hard one because this team is loaded and I expect someone to be traded before the season starts. It won’t be Mewis though, who is on the verge of being one of the best midfielders on the planet. The arrival of Debinha should allow Mewis to play a more consistently deeper role, which should emphasize her effectiveness. Maybe Debinha should have been here instead, but it’s tough to get a read on new internationals and Mewis is likely to be a key part regardless. This team has too much talent not to be good, but I think we’re on the verge of seeing something really special out of Mewis.
Orlando Pride, Kristen Edmonds: The Pride have some talent, but the roster construction has been odd and they continue to mortgage future assets. They’ll start the season without Alex Morgan (Europe) or Rachel Hill (school) and could struggle again to figure out midfield. Enter Edmonds, who played everywhere for the team in 2016, was the club’s best player for stretches and earned a call-up to the U.S.
Unlike in their expansion season, the Pride are very likely to be better at the end of the season than at the start. Edmonds will be the most important player if they are to stay afloat until that happens.
Portland Thorns FC, Emily Sonnett: This was tough because the Thorns are so good and so deep. Sonnett had a lot on her plate leading up to and during 2016 and appeared a bit worn out after the Olympics. I’m expecting more teams, especially ones with speed, will try to sit and counter, and Sonnet will be organizing things at the back.
Other questions in Portland include whether Tobin Heath can do an encore of her amazing 2016, if the miles will ever catch up with Christine Sinclair and if the goalkeeper position will emerge as a problem. But a step forward for Sonnett will go a long way toward making the Thorns a bear to play against in 2017.
Seattle Reign FC, Rachel Corsie: Right now I have the Reign tabbed as the most fascinating team in 2017. They keep adding parts that could make them very good while at the same time farther distancing themselves from the Shield teams in ’14 and ’15. The defense is where cracks could emerge. A year after Steph Cox retired, Kendall Fletcher elected to stay in Australia to go to school and Hope Solo looks less and less likely to be around.
Corsie missed the back end of 2016 with an injury, but her versatility on the back line and experience under Laura Harvey will make her key as the two-time Coach of the Year figures out the best combination for the new season.
Sky Blue FC, Daphne Corboz: The most glaring element missing from Sky Blue in 2016 was a playmaking presence in the attacking midfield spot. Enter Corboz whose forte is just that. It remains to be seen just how Christy Holly will use her, but Corboz could have a field day distributing to Samantha Kerr, Leah Galton, and maybe Tasha Kai and Kelley O’Hara.
We’ll also find out if Rookie of the Year Raquel Rodriguez plays a more aggressive role in the midfield, but if Corboz can be the counterbalance to Sarah Killion as a holding player, Rodriguez could run amuck in her second pro season.
Washington Spirit, Joanna Lohman: Following a season that nearly ended in a championship, the Spirit are in flux on and off the field. To that end, who knows how they’ll look or play this season. Lohman, who will be 35 in June, enjoyed her best season in 2016, and she’ll have to do it this year without Christine Nairn or Diana Matheson. The Spirit really have question marks on all four lines, but another solid season from Lohman will help keep things stable in the middle of the park.