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Changes loom: Get ready for NWSL season 2.0

The Chicago Red Stars could make one of the biggest second-half pushes in the NWSL. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

About one-third of the way through the NWSL season (that went quickly, didn’t it?), the league’s second year of play is at its turning point.

No, the NWSL doesn’t have a split season, Apertura/Clausura* setup like in Latin America or the NASL, but with the calendar flipping to June in a mere few days, several team’s in North America’s top women’s flight are about to undergo grand makeovers typically reserved for the offseason.

(For what it’s worth, a split season could be a great solution to how to handle the Women’s World Cup next year, with the winner of each half playing in the championship.)

Anyway, below is a look at how (drastically) things could change in the coming weeks. When all is said and done, I’d envision the top and bottom of the table staying the same, with a lot of movement in the middle.

Boston Breakers

The last-place Breakers will welcome back Australian forward Lisa De Vanna with open arms. (They’ll have to first welcome her to the bench to finally serve a one-game red card suspension.) Boston has been miserable to date, scoring just seven goals and amassing three points from seven games. De Vanna should help carry some of the scoring burden — though she is without a goal in four games before leaving for the AFC Women’s Asian Cup — but the backline’s 18 goals against remains an issue.

Chicago Red Stars

Already surprisingly in second place with games in hand, the Chicago Red Stars look like they are about to turn into a force with the arrival of some key players. No mid-season NWSL entrance will have more eyes on her than U.S. striker Christen Press, who will play on home soil for the first time in three years after ending her time with Tyresö this past week following a loss in the UEFA Champions League final. Jen Hoy has carried most of the scoring load to date with four goals, and she could find even more freedom as defenses focus in on Press.

Also joining the fray in Chicago is New Zealand center back Abby Erceg, who along with the nearly-healthy again Taryn Hemmings could develop into a formidable central tandem if they can jell quickly. That would also allow rookie Julie Johnston to push into a holding midfielder role, where Shannon Boxx could also return. Add in the addition of Emily Van Egmond (and a long-teased but still mysterious signing), and the Red Stars are basically a new team. They’ll need the firepower as their schedule in particular gets tougher down the stretch; Chicago’s current four-game winning streak is entirely against Houston and Boston, the league’s two worst teams.

Houston Dash

Aya Sameshima looks unlikely to join Houston after an injury that kept her from even making it to preseason, but the Dash will finally get their two U.S. international defenders to patch up the league’s worst defense. Center back Whitney Engen and left back Meghan Klingenberg arrive from Tyresö on June 2 and will make this Houston team better immediately. As forward Ella Masar said after Monday’s loss to Washington, the goals are finally coming of late, but the Dash keep conceding. Engen and Klingenberg will change that, but it will might not be enough to pull them up beyond 7th place if they can’t find net.

FC Kansas City

In the most interesting of the midseason twists, one of FC Kansas City’s new additions will create a serious challenge for coach Vlatko Andonovski. Forward Sarah Hagen is set to join the team in June after her contract with FC Bayern Munich ends. The problem? FC Kansas City plays a 4-2-3-1 formation, and the one up top is Amy Rodriguez, tied for the league lead in goals with eight. A-Rod has been on fire, simply put, and the Blues have made this their signature formation. Andonovski tried a 4-4-2 in the first few games of the season, and they looked awful.

This club is far more comfortable in the formation it’s in, so how can Hagen be integrated? That will be the big question for Andonovski, who may have to use Hagen off the bench as a late reinforcement. Rodriguez is capable of dropping into a wide role, but taking the league’s leading goal-scorer away from goal isn’t happening.

Also joining FC Kansas City’s crowded midfield is the 5-foot-1-inch Australian Katrina Gorry.

Portland Thorns FC

June 7 is nearly here — we told you to save the date. Alex Morgan is almost fully healthy, along with U.S. teammate Rachel Van Hollebeke. Veronica Boquete, the 2011 WPS MVP, is on her way over from Tyresö, and Stephanie Catley is on her way to the Rose City after helping Australia finish second at the AFC Women’s Asian Cup. Oh, and Tobin Heath will join the club in late June.

For weeks the Thorns have reminded us that they’ve been scrapping their way to the 14 points that they currently have without five would-be starters. No team will add more firepower in June than Portland, and the pressures of repeating as champions will be elevated. The question, yet again, is in the chemistry. Christine Sinclair hasn’t scored this season and never really got on the same page with Morgan last year. Combine that with Paul Riley needing to integrate all his new pieces into a team that already has plenty of talent, and there will be some roster juggling — and some unhappy players on the bench, surely.

Sky Blue FC

Jim Gabarra has an empty international slot at his disposal, but that looks unlikely to get filled. He will welcome back with open arms Japanese forward Nanase Kiryu and Australian defender Caitlin Foord back. Kiryu looked like she was just getting comfortable in New Jersey before leaving for the month of May to guide Japan to an Asian championship, so she’ll need to re-assimilate with Sky Blue. Foord should slide back into her right back spot and allow Cami Levin to push back into a holding midfield role (or maybe slide to left back). Foord has been used up top at times, but Kelley O’Hara’s recent success there suggests the U.S. utility player should settle into the more advanced role for a Sky Blue team that needs goals.

Seattle Reign FC

Not too much will change in Seattle, and the still unbeaten Reign are fine with that. Nahomi Kawasumi returns from Japan’s Asian Cup triumph to reintroduce yet another scary element to Seattle’s front three. Her absence was felt as Laura Harvey turned to defender Kiersten Dallstream in a forward role the last two games, a gamble that didn’t pay off. Kawasumi will look to build off of her one goal thus far this season, playing alongside INAC Kobe teammate Beverly Goebel and U.S. striker Sydney Leroux, who has had a quiet season with just one goal thus far.

Washington Spirit

Two defensive signinngs — Niki Cross and one yet-to-be-named player — are headed to the nation’s capital, and the Washington Spirit certainly need them. Ali Krieger has been playing center back in the absence of injured Toni Pressley, a move that isn’t ideal for anyone; Krieger is one of the best right backs in the league. The defensive lapses continue for the Spirit, who have given up 18 goals in nine games this season but have scored enough to sit fifth in the table, 1 point from a playoff spot.

Western New York Flash

Coach Aaran Lines Flash sit a disappointing sixth in the table heading into the final days of May. The additions for Western New York are Australians Lydia Williams and Sam Kerr. Rookie Kelsey Wys has done well in net filling in for Williams, but Kerr’s presence has certainly been missed through the midfield and in the final third. Rekindling her successful connection with Carli Lloyd should help the Flash.

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