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The Lowdown: Burning questions to start NWSL preseason

Allie Long gets her first goal of 2017 with a header in the 82nd minute against the Reign on Saturday. (Photo: David Blair - Portland Thorns FC)
Thorns coach Mark Parsons has already said Allie Long is a midfielder in Portland. (Photo: David Blair - Portland Thorns FC)

Thorns coach Mark Parsons has already said Allie Long is a midfielder in Portland. (Photo: David Blair – Portland Thorns FC)

NWSL preseason is underway at 10 training camps around the country. Here are three on-field and two off-field points of interest with less than five weeks until opening day.

Will Vlatko have to adjust his formation?

When FC Kansas City burst onto the scene in 2013, a then unknown Vlatko Andonovski installed a 4-2-3-1, and the Blues played beautiful soccer pretty much immediately. The shape became a trademark of the club which was the only one to reach the playoffs each of the first three seasons. A spate of retirements and pregnancies did them in last season but with a few exceptions the team stuck to the script—it just couldn’t score.

As the team convenes for the 2017 season, a look at the roster suggests a shakeup will be needed. Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux are both returning from maternity leave, and neither one is particularly well suited to playing anywhere other than up top. Throw Shea Groom in the mix and for the first time, Andonovki has three viable forwards to select from.

When I spoke to Andonovski around the NWSL Draft, he kept his cards close to the vest but did say he was willing to change things up if necessary. And the truth is that there have been some variations to the 4-2-3-1 over the years, some of which have worked and some of which have not.

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A closer look though suggests FC Kansas City’s attacking personnel might struggle to fit into the same puzzle. Looking strictly at the strikers it may make the most sense to put Groom underneath Rodriguez and Leroux. That sounds like a dynamic trio, but then what to do with the midfield, particularly Erika Tymrak whose game is not well suited to a 4-3-3?

Andonovski has upgraded at outside back, which could allow for Brittany Taylor to move back to her favored central defense spot and push Yael Averbuch back into midfield. Combining Averbuch with Desiree Scott and Mandy Laddish could be a workable trio playing behind a Rodriguez-Groom-Leroux combination, but that leaves Tymrak as the odd woman out.

These are just ideas. I’m sure Andonovski, who tends to operate a step ahead of most as it is, has spent far more time mulling this over than anyone else has. But looking ahead of opening day, FC Kansas City is the team I’m most curious to see in terms of how they play and who they play where.

Will anyone dare to play 3-5-2?

When the SheBelieves Cup ended last week, players began addressing whether they would welcome using Jill Ellis’s new 3-5-2 lineup when they get in with their club teams. All gave the politically correct replies, but will any NWSL coach dare to put it to the test?

It would not be revolutionary to the league. Jim Gabarra installed a 3-5-2 for the NWL Championship and was seconds away from being hailed a genius for it. (That begs the question, why is Ellis treating the formation like it might take the U.S. two years to learn it? That’s not for this space, but my friend and colleague Chelsey Bush addresses it in this review of the U.S. backline from SheBelieves.) Laura Harvey also used it for a spell in Seattle near the end of last season. And Andonovski rolled one out on opening day last year, though he later admitted it did not work and kept that club in the bag the rest of the year. The 2015 Thorns tried it with disastrous results.

Mark Parsons has already more or less dismissed the notion of doing it in Portland when he told reporters Allie Long would play in midfield. That leaves Emily Menges and Emily Sonnett to return as the central defense pairing. With Meghan Klingenberg and Katherine Reynolds to man the outside back posts, it just makes sense for the Shield winners to stay as they were.

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Julie Johnston centered the three-back for the U.S. against England, but the Red Stars are too good and too consistent to think Rory Dames would give any serious consideration to adjusting his traditional 4-4-2—certainly not by taking away a defender.

So would it make sense for any team? The Spirit no longer have Ali Krieger, who was integral to them doing it in the final. Not to mention Gabarra was specifically trying to isolate Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald. He is not averse to experimenting with his formation though, so I wouldn’t entirely rule it out. That said, the Spirit don’t have any players in the national team pool so there is less of a direct correlation. Krieger is in Orlando now, but the Pride don’t have enough team speed to leave themselves so exposed.

One intriguing team is Sky Blue, especially since it doesn’t look like Kristin Grubka will be back in New Jersey. And a three-back at Yurcak could utilize Kelley O’Hara as a wingback for a quasi audition for Ellis. The Courage roster is loaded with attackers and they might be the fastest women’s team ever assembled, so on personnel it could make some sense. But they just won the championship playing four in the back, and it was Paul Riley who tried the three-back in Portland two years ago without much to show for it.

If there is one absolute certainty in soccer, it’s that coaches will surprise us. And for the moment it would take a pretty big surprise for any NWSL team to switch and commit to playing three at the back. But so long as Ellis is running it with the national team, expect it to be near the forefront of any discussion on formation.

Breakers already set on roster?

1st round pick Margaret Purce with NWSL Managing Director, Amanda Duffy (photo by Brad Smith, ISI Photos)

1st round pick Margaret Purce, left, with NWSL Managing Director, Amanda Duffy (photo by Brad Smith, ISI Photos)

Matt Beard spent the offseason overhauling all three of his outfield lines, and it now seems like he’s about set on the team he wants to go to battle with in a month. Beard has only 22 players in training camp to fill out a roster that will land at 20 players. Three are goalkeepers, which means that unless someone else comes in, Beard will be dropping one goalkeeper and one field player between now and April 10 when final rosters are due.

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Is this a good move, or is Beard stretching by having the smallest camp roster in the league? On one hand many of the players were specifically targeted by Beard, so in a sense he’s gambling on himself. On the other having 22 players in camp reduces competition and doesn’t even allow for any 11-v.-11 scrimmaging (the Breakers have 19 field players and one of their keepers, Libby Stout, is injured.)

The Breakers have the makings of a team on the rise, especially from an attacking standpoint (3-5-2 anyone?), but insulating the training camp roster seems to be passing up on a chance to infuse preseason with a healthy dose of competition.

The streams…are buffering

I was talking to a friend of mine last week who is not a cable subscriber and therefore does not currently have access to Lifetime. There is no doubt this friend will do whatever it takes to see as many NWSL games as possible this season. The only problem is, with 32 days until kickoff, she is currently stuck. She is stuck because NWSL and its new media partner A&E have yet to announce details for how non-televised matches will be distributed. In the meantime, she and others are worried about whether or not they will have to pay, whether matches will be available as readily and as flexibly as they were on YouTube (which has not been officially ruled out as a partner) and for international fans, whether they will be available at all.

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This is not meant to be alarmist. The announcement will come eventually and even if there are some alterations from what we’re all accustomed to, the games will be available. But more than five weeks since the grand announcement in New York City, the only sound emanating from league headquarters has been radio silence.

What impact will the new commissioner have?

By all accounts it appears that Managing Director Amanda Duffy is calling the shots since Jeff Plush announced he was stepping down as commissioner. At the time of the announcement, the league said a national search was underway to find Plush’s replacement. We’re not holding our breath.

All that said, whoever does land in the commissioner’s chair will be joining the league at an exciting time and have a unique opportunity to help push it forward. The A&E deal, whenever the finer points finally get ironed out, will open many new doors for the league. For the first time ever in women’s soccer, ownership groups are clamoring to get in rather than scrambling to find escape routes. Whether or not Marta winds up in Orlando, the mere idea that she and the Pride are in serious discussions about a move out of Europe and back to the U.S. speaks volumes about where the league is compared to when it launched.

Unfortunately, unless there is already work going down behind the scenes, the new commissioner won’t have much say over the short-term distribution of the rank-and-file league matches. But NWSL is in a position to trail blaze a bit in terms of how its product is distributed. Chasing deals with major sports networks makes for a good headline and a few quality broadcasts, but engaging fans in ways they will be consuming sports for the next 5-10 years and longer will serve NWSL better than a six-match contract with FOX Sports.

We have no idea who the next commissioner will be or even what realm they will pull him or her from. Will it be a business person? A sports executive? It may even be some sort of hybrid type. Personally I believe there are pros and cons to all of those options. I also believe that NWSL is at a critical juncture and that the opportunity for growth is here. Thorns owner Merritt Paulson has said via his Twitter account that the league has “the wind at our backs.” If he and his fellow owners can find a commissioner to harness that wind, NWSL has a great chance to arrive in the next decade as a firmly viable and stable sports option.

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