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The Lowdown: Tipping the scales in NWSL in 2015

Jen Hoy could be Chicago's most important player this season with World Cup absences. (Photo Courtesy Chicago Red Stars)

Jen Hoy could be Chicago’s most important player this season with World Cup absences. (Photo Courtesy Chicago Red Stars)

Don’t look now but it’s March and NWSL preseason starts Monday.  To get 2015 started in Lowdown style, we picked a player (or two) on each of the nine clubs who could be the most important during what will be a unique season.  Note these are not any of the team’s best players but more often a mid-level player who could tip the fortunes of the season one way or the other.  There is bound to be more than a little debate here—so please keep the discussion respectful.

Boston Breakers – Julie King

Of all the players who shuttled in and out of the center back spot partnering Cat Whitehill last season, King was probably the best after moving in from left back.  Unfortunately she was injured just when she began hitting her stride.  The addition of Kassey Kallman could send King back to the left side, but either way her continued development will be key for a side that should be better but remains thin.

Chicago Red Stars – Jen Hoy

The Red Stars were at their best last season when Hoy was active and scoring goals.  Ultimately she now has more help in the form of Christen Press, but Hoy—who was put on a new offseason program to try and extend her durability—will be there the entire way.  The Red Stars are plenty loaded defensively and seem to have an adequate goalkeeper solution for Karina LeBlanc’s international absences in Taylor Vancil, but they will need to score a few more goals to take the next step.

FC Kansas City – Amy LePeilbet

LePeilbet was once among the best center backs in the world and the holders will be pleased if she can approach that level in what figures to be her first full season healthy in the NWSL.  The Blues’ defensive four have been outstanding two years running but Becky Sauerbrunn will be with the U.S. national team and Nikki Phillips is pregnant and will not play this season.  That leaves LePeilbet as the most consistent player in back and someone FCKC likely needs to play well in order to rival the last two seasons defensively.

Houston Dash – Brittany Bock

The first pick in the 2014 expansion draft, Bock was supposed to be a pillar in the Dash midfield until she tore her ACL in the opening minutes of the season.  With Becky Edwards now in Western New York, a healthy Bock will be called on to be the defensive presence in the Dash midfield.  The ACL tear was only the latest in a long line of injuries that have slowed Bock’s career since she debuted as a jack-of-all-trades rookie with the 2009 Los Angeles Sol in WPS.  It will be tough for the Dash to be a playoff threat without her contributions.

Portland Thorns FC – Allie Long

This is either the most talented or the most disjointed roster in the league — quite possibly both.  Long will be their top player sans international responsibilities and can play either at the top or bottom of the midfield.  The Thorns’ season is likely to hinge on how well the World Cup players work their way back in for the last six weeks, but Long will be one who they will look to in the early stages.

Seattle Reign FC – Beverly Yanez (nee Goebel)

For as good as the Reign were last season they won’t be impacted by the World Cup as much as it may seem.  Their defense should be intact as should their midfield.  It will be the strikers that are most affected with Sydney Leroux and Megan Rapinoe bound for the World Cup and Nahomi Kawasumi not coming back.  That leaves Goebel, one of the more underrated players in the league in 2014, an important cog for a side that did not lose a match last season until July.

Sky Blue – Maya Hayes

The club’s 2014 1st-round pick was thrown into the deep end last season on a team that was struggling to score.  Her improvement and comfort level from the start of the season to the end was noticeable.  Now she will get a full season playing with Nadia Nadim, but with Kelley O’Hara set to be part of the U.S. World Cup side, Hayes will be called on to pick up some of the offensive slack if Sky Blue are going to keep up offensively.

Washington Spirit – Estafania Banini/Natasha Harding

Going two-pronged here because the Spirit traded away leading scorer Jodie Taylor and replaced her with two talented players with no NWSL experience.  More often than not talent wins out, but international players also need to acclimate to new environs.  New acquisitions like Estelle Johnson and Kelsey Wys will also be vital to the Spirit’s success but with no production up top it won’t matter much.  Banini and Harding will be the ones asked to finish.

Western New York Flash – Brittany Taylor

Taylor was spectacular in 2013 when the Flash won the Shield and she was named to the league’s Best XI.  Last season was a different story on both counts.  The Flash slumped to seventh place and Taylor made too many mistakes in central defense.  There was far more to the club’s woes than Taylor but with many of the veterans traded away and several others slated to miss time for the World Cup, Taylor is now among the grizzled veterans and a return to her steady form could be the first piece in the puzzle that is the road back to the top.

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