It’s the final Tuesday before the opening of the regular season, which means it is time for my annual NWSL predictions. In other words, it’s time to subject myself to a summer of ridicule when things ultimately play out the complete opposite of how I see them today. A few of my colleagues have also been brave enough to offer their picks which are included below.
Keep in mind, these are just predictions. Why did I pick your favorite team to finish last? Well, someone is going to be last come September 30, right? These represent neither personal feelings toward any team or player nor any particularly rooting interest.
That said, I’m happy to engage anyone whether you agree or disagree. I can be found on Twitter @thedanlauletta. I will reply to any respectful tweets throughout the day.
1. Chicago Red Stars – The only team left still working on the vision laid out from the league’s launch will get a full season of Christen Press and have enough weapons and discipline to hit the top of the table. Rory Dames has at least one player on each line who is in the discussion for best in the league, and Casey Short has spent a good part of the off-season training with the national team. Most importantly, the addition of Stephanie McCaffrey late last season and the coming of age of Sofia Huerta have the Red Stars more versatile then ever up top and poised to make the final jump.
2. North Carolina Courage – The Courage—then the Western New York Flash—may have arrived early when they won the 2016 NWSL Championship, but make no mistake about it, this was always a club on the rise. The addition of Debinha and Rosana to bolster the midfield and Yuri Kawamura on defense could make the Courage even more formidable than the Flash were. It all has to click of course, and the Jessica McDoald/Lynn Williams duo up top will be hard-pressed to repeat their offensive output from a season ago. The defending champion rarely gets any leeway in terms of where they finish the following season. But whether or not the Courage win it all, I expect them to continue developing and for Sam Mewis to turn in a Best XI caliber season.
3. Portland Thorns FC – A year after lighting up the off-season with a slew of high-profile acquisitions, the Thorns mostly stood pat. It’s hard to blame them following a Shield-winning season that saw the team play as hard as it did beautiful. If there are any concerns, it is a lack of team speed, which was an area that cost them in a semifinal loss to the Flash, and that Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan are opening the season nursing injuries that cost them last week’s national team camp. The big picture though is that there is no reason the Thorns shouldn’t be right back in the Shield race.
4. FC Kansas City – For all of the Blues’ struggles last season it should be noted they still surrendered only 20 goals over 20 games, and more often than not, stuck to the script. The issue was scoring goals, and that is an issue that should get cleared up with the return of Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux after both missed last season for maternity leave (Leroux has yet to appear in a regular season match for FC Kansas City.) The additional personnel may force Vlatko Andonovski to alter his formation, but if he can convey his message, there is no reason it won’t be four playoff bids in five seasons.
5. Orlando Pride – Marta, Marta, Marta. The last time Marta played regularly on these shores, she was the dominant player in the league at all three stops. That won’t likely be the case in NWSL, but the five-time World Player of the Year should be able to score goals and deliver points for the Pride. The club also quietly got better beyond Marta, and the back line should be able to stay intact a year after its Olympic-driven disintegration led to a second-half free fall. Alex Morgan should be back in June, and the presence of Marta should take some pressure off and free her up to be an impact player the rest of the way. The Pride have mortgaged a lot of their future for the current roster—they are currently traded completely out of the 2018 draft—but making a run at the playoffs is certainly not out of the question.
6. Sky Blue FC – There are a lot of ifs with this club, not the least of which is, if all of the ifs return with positive answers, the finish could easily find itself in the playoffs. It appears 1st round picks Kayla Mills and Mandy Freeman will be asked to help keep things tight in the back where 41-year old Christie Rampone will again be asked to direct things. Daphne Corboz was brought in to add some creativity to the midfield. Sam Kerr appears to be healthy and a full season paired with Leah Galton could be a sight to behold. The age-old question about where to play Kelley O’Hara could finally be a case of where she is best suited rather than where she is most needed.
7. Seattle Reign FC – The post-Kim Little era begins with more questions than answers and also includes the retirement of Keelin Winters and departure of Kendall Fletcher. Those are six massive shoes to fill, and while Laura Harvey has done a nice job of recreating the club, it could be a few changes too many in a league that is getting more competitive every season. Success will depend on how quickly players like New Zealander Rebekah Stott and rookie Maddie Bauer jell in back and whether Bev Yanez can rediscover her goal-scoring touch. A resurgence from Megan Rapinoe would be welcome as well.
8. Washington Spirit – The team that wowed us with their passing game in 2016 has been torn apart, but in its wake is a sneaky good roster that has a chance to surprise some people. The greatest concern looks to be in the goal-scoring department, where Francisca Ordega and Cheyna Williams will be asked to carry a greater load on a more consistent basis. Crystal Dunn did not score as often in 2016 but may have been the most complete player in NWSL and will be impossible to replace. The back line, even without Ali Krieger, should be solid. A drop off is inevitable, but a mid-table finish is not out of the question and the future could be bright as well.
9. Boston Breakers – After two consecutive last-place finishes, the Breakers had a busy off-season and will no doubt be better and more exciting in 2017. Rose Lavelle has been a delight for the national team and will be a focal point of an offense that now includes Rosie White to supplement Natasha Dowie. The Breakers also made three other 1st round picks and acquired Megan Oyster from the Spirit to anchor the back line. Oyster—capped for the first time last week—will be a key to the squad. If she can thrive and lead the back line, the Breakers have a chance to win some matches. But if the defensive unit breaks down, it could be another long season in Boston. Betting on better play and better results, but not much progress in terms of the table.
10. Houston Dash – Last season was not often pretty in Houston, especially when Kealia Ohai was not scoring. Before Ohai went on her tear, the Dash went 567 minutes and six full games without scoring a single goal. They lost all six, 1-0. Later in the season when Ohai and the offense got rolling, the defense failed to live up to its end of the bargain. The Dash remade the defense over the winter but will be without Carli Lloyd (on short-term contract with Manchester City) into June. They don’t look like a basement club on paper, but the vibe suggests they may not have found the right mix just yet.
Playoffs: I’ll take the Courage to beat the Thorns again though in a manner not likely as dramatic as last year, and after fighting and clawing to get into the playoffs, FC Kansas City run out of answers against the Red Stars who turn the tables from the 2015 semifinal. In the final a disciplined Red Stars side keeps the Courage at bay to become the first NWSL club to lift both trophies in the same season.
Most Valuable Player: Christen Press is the best natural goal scorer in NWSL, and with more weapons around her and fewer international interruptions, she will make a run at becoming the first player to hit 20 goals in U.S. WoSoPro since Marta with the 2010 FC Gold Pride. The offensive explosion will land her have her being fitted for the golden boot with room to spare and keep alive the NWSL’s perfect record of having the Boot winner also named MVP.
Golden Boot: See above
My thoughts on attendance
During the regular season I normally run a weekly attendance table here and fully intend to do so again. Few things bring soccer fans’ temperatures to a boil quite like a discussion about attendance. And everyone wants to know, will attendance be up or down across the board in 2017? There are a few factors to take note of.
First, the Courage replaced the Flash who were up in 2016 but still lagged behind the average (even the average removing the Thorns.) It is tough to say just how vibrant the fan base will be in North Carolina, but ownership is fully committed, the team is exciting, and I expect them to draw better than the Flash of the last three seasons.
Second, the addition of two additional home games per team will boost the totals but is likely to be a drain on the average. That’s because fans, groups, or families that plan one or two outings a year will now be averaged in over 12 games instead of 10. In short, every ticket is now worth about .083 to the average attendance whereas last season each ticket was worth .100. I’m not suggesting this is a bad idea. In fact the season eventually needs to be even longer. But in the short term there could be a small drag on the averages.
Other factors: The reduction in midweek dates to one for every team is a huge boost as is the absence of a lengthy break. On the flipside those breaks were for the World Cup and Olympics which drove more eyes to the sport. The 2015 World Cup bounce was something of an anomaly but in terms of building a brand, playing straight through the summer is the best avenue. (looking ahead the 2019 World Cup ends June 30 which will leave plenty of time for any bump to really take hold on the season)
I think the Pride will see numbers go up slightly in their new digs.
I think the Spirit will be down following the Anthem fiasco that the club has yet to adequately address. The mass exodus of regular players did not help either.
I think the hard push for 4 p.m. EDT Lifetime broadcasts, plus backup games most weeks, will also be a drag on attendance (again, doesn’t necessarily mean it was the wrong decision). Teams, especially, fledgling ones, thrive on consistency, and the youth soccer market is tough to attract at that hour.
I think Portland will continue to amaze us all and see their average go up again.
When we do this the first week of October, I expect mostly encouraging attendance figures.
From those who dared to put themselves out there…
If there’s one thing we’ve figured out about the NWSL, it is – like MLS – preseason predictions largely do nothing but open yourself up to ridicule later. For instance, even with the altering lens of hindsight, there are few that admit they had Western New York (now North Carolina Courage) making the playoffs last season, let alone winning the NWSL title.
And there are question marks just about everywhere, from the health of players like Tobin Heath and Morgan Brian, to the return of Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez, to Rose Lavelle injecting real live optimism into Boston. But we can always throw darts at a board and see where they come out, can’t we? And a couple might hit their mark:
1. Chicago Red Stars — A vote for the Red Stars is a vote for consistency, as Chicago is virtually unchanged from the squad that finished third last season. In the end, that seems a bit disappointing, as was its extra time defeat to Washington in the semifinals. The core of their team was amazingly stable with Casey Short, Arin Gilliland, Vanessa DiBernardo, Danielle Colaprico and Sofia Huerta starting all 20 regular season matches. That might actually be a source of concern as injury luck is not guaranteed over a long season, certainly not two seasons in a row. But Julie Ertz (nee Johnston), Christen Press, and Alyssa Naeher should now be able to join in the consistency after being away for the Olympics last season, and being able to field the same squad with quality players at just about every position should push them to the top of the table over the long haul.
2. North Carolina Courage — They may have surprised everyone last season, but they won’t this season. However, I don’t believe their success was a fluke, and those with the national team don’t either, as Lynn Williams and Samantha Mewis have become national team regulars, while Jessica McDonald and Jaelene Hinkle have also seen their names called more often than before. Like Chicago, Paul Riley has found success with hard-working players that he can consistently place on the team sheet, like Abby Dahlkemper (who has also been in USWNT camps), Abby Erceg, and McCall Zerboni. Other than a new state and facility, Riley has brought on added assistant coaches, a couple of Brazilian players, and second overall pick Ashley Hatch. Too much tinkering? We shall find out.
3. Portland Thorns FC — The Thorns still probably have the most overall talent in NWSL, but can only play 11 of them at a time, and only seven or so in attacking positions, so we’ll have to see what Mark Parsons conjures up for lineups with (hopefully) no national team call-ups forthcoming that will force players to miss games. Already, Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan are a bit banged up and with Michelle Betos gone, Adrianna Franch has had her preseason troubles. They’re surely be in a playoff spot by season’s end, but handing them the NWSL Shield for a second straight year may be a bit premature.
4. Sky Blue FC — Sky Blue stumbled a bit to the finish line last season, but was only six points out of a playoff berth at the end, and Sam Kerr started only 6 games (scoring 5 times). Kerr, still just 23, has the potential to be a league MVP if she can stay healthy for an entire season, and Sky Blue has some dangerous pieces around her in Leah Galton and Kelley O’Hara (who looks set to move permanently to a more advanced role this season). Raquel Rodriguez is back in the middle, while first-round pick Kayla Mills does the same in the back next to the ageless Christie Rampone. If rookie (and Canadian international) Kailen Sheridan can do the same in goal, there’s no reason to think that Sky Blue can’t qualify for the playoffs. Hopefully, that will get some people to Yurcak Field as well.
5. Houston Dash — The Dash finally seemed to get going toward the end of last season, but it’s been a largely disappointing existence for Randy Waldrum and crew in NWSL thus far as they are still in search of their first playoff berth. There should be no problem scoring goals, led by in form Janine Beckie, Kealia Ohai, and Rachel Daly (who did not make the England squad for this summer’s Euros). If they can get Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian out there with them, that might be an unmatched top five attacking force in NWSL. But it mysteriously only led to eighth place last season and an historic goal drought which still hasn’t been explained. They have tried to sure up the defensive end, but we’ll see how much shortly.
6. FC Kansas City — No one, not even Vlatko Andonovski, knows how Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez will rebound from an entire year off, but the early signs have been positive. FCKC still managed one of the top defensive squads in NWSL without them (Nicole Barnhart probably should have won Goalkeeper of the Year), but couldn’t score. It will be interesting to see what Andonovski does with Shea Groom, whom he called a future USWNT player last season. Groom managed 8 goals, but did not have a single assist. With Christina Gibbons around, FCKC has a little more flexibility in the back, setting up a potential 3-back with Gibbons, Yael Averbuch, and Brittany Taylor, which might lead to more offense for the likes of Leroux and Rodriguez? But time will tell.
7. Orlando Pride — Marta will apparently play a full season, which is huge for the Pride, who managed just 20 goals in 2016. They’ve also added Ali Krieger and will play in a new stadium, but Orlando is still suffering a bit from the price it had to pay to acquire Alex Morgan last season (and being an expansion team), as their depth just doesn’t quite add up to the teams in front of them here. With the right help, Marta will flourish in NWSL, as she has everywhere else. But, especially until Morgan arrives (which probably won’t be until late June), I’m not sure where that help is going to come from.
8. Seattle Reign FC — Laura Harvey has proven to be not only one of the best coaches in NWSL, but one of the top women’s coaches in the world with her success both in England and the United States. But I’m just not convinced this group of players as they’re currently constructed is a playoff team. Megan Rapinoe is the only allocated USWNT player, but Kim Little’s departure will be the biggest loss. It’s easy to forget that if you had to pick the best player over the first three seasons of NWSL, it would probably be Little, who was utterly dominant in her first two seasons in Seattle. Jess Fishlock is back as is Beverly Yanez and some other members of the supporting cast, but their leading goal scorer from last season (Manon Melis) and Keelin Winters are also elsewhere. Barring some crazy Harvey moves (don’t put it past her), there just doesn’t seem to be enough to bring the Reign into the top half of the competitive table.
9. Boston Breakers — The Rose Lavelle train has already left the Back Bay station if you missed it, but there are a few others you might be able to catch, namely Natasha Dowie’s. Dowie quietly (mostly because the Breakers were in dead last) led Boston in scoring with 3 goals in just 7 games. With a full season and the likes of rookies Lavelle, Morgan Andrews, and Midge Purce around her, the Breakers might be able to score some goals. Can they keep balls out of their own net, though? Well, that’s going to be the question that will indicate whether the Breakers become only slightly improved or whether Matt Beard may be in for some Coach of the Year consideration by season’s end. But there are still plenty of question marks to be answered, starting with goalkeeper, before visions of that can dance in the heads of long suffering Breakers fans.
10. Washington Spirit — Gutted doesn’t quite do justice to what has happened to the Spirit roster since it was seconds away from capturing the NWSL title just six months ago. Consider that, at best, 4 starters (Shelina Zadorsky, Whitney Church, Tori Huster, and Francisca Ordega) from the 2016 title game will suit up for the Spirit in their opener on Saturday, and they are now the only team in NWSL without an allocated USWNT player. There are some underrated players on the roster from Katie Stengel, Ordega, and Havana Solaun, to even Kristie Mewis, who finds herself again on a team that appears headed for the bottom half of the league. But, on paper at least, it’s hard to see the Spirit anywhere but last when all is said and done at the end of the summer.
Playoffs: Sky Blue over Portland for NWSL title
MVP: Christen Press
Golden Boot: Christen Press
3. North Carolina
5. Sky Blue
Final: Chicago over North Carolina
Golden Boot: Marta
MVP: Tobin Heath
Rookie: (you did not ask, I do not care) ROSE LAVELLE
1. Orlando Pride
2. FC Kansas City
3. Portland Thorns FC
4. Chicago Red Stars
5. Houston Dash
6. Seattle Reign FC
7. Sky Blue FC
8. Boston Breakers
9. North Carolina Courage
10. Washington Spirit
NWSL Championship: Orlando Pride over Portland Thorns FC
NWSL MVP: Nadia Nadim
NWSL Golden Boot: Marta