The fourth NWSL season begins on Saturday. Three of our writers have offered their predictions on the season. Do you agree? Did agree? Either way this will give us plenty to think about over the next six months.
1. Washington Spirit: Diana Matheson is back and fully healthy which should help the midfield and Katie Stengel was brought in is a foil to Crystal Dunn up top. Add in a back four which is a year longer in experience and the flexibility to use Ali Krieger back there or in midfield and it is time for the Spirit to complete the climb to the top of the table. (read our preview)
2. Seattle Reign FC: The Kim-Little-Jess Fishlock-Keelin Winters midfield is back and that alone makes the Reign candidates to win the Shield for a third straight season. The key will be successfully working Manon Melis into the group and settling some left-sided issues brought on by the retirement of Steph Cox and injury to Megan Rapinoe. (read out preview)
3. Chicago Red Stars: Some shrewd maneuvering allowed the Red Stars to land Alyssa Naeher which should make a solid defense even better. On the flipside they will have to find a way to get by in midfield without the retired Lori Chalupny, and secondary forwards Sofia Huerta and Jen Hoy will need to develop better chemistry with Christen Press. If all goes well they should be right back near the top. (read our preview)
4. Houston Dash: The Dash made several upgrades to their attack which will give them more options and flexibility than ever. Rookies Janine Beckie and Rachel Daly plus young but experienced newcomers Denise O’Sullivan and Chioma Ubogagu should combine with Kealia Ohai and Carli Lloyd to make the Dash dangerous no matter the personnel. Randy Waldrum openly admits the lack of a domineering center back is a concern but the attack and keeper tandem should be enough to send them to the playoffs for the first time. (read our preview)
5. Portland Thorns FC: It certainly looks like the Thorns have the best starting XI in NWSL, but like last year they will be gutted by international absences and trying to work Amandine Henry into the mix during the season will be more difficult than it would appear. Expecting some dynamic moments and some rough times and a near miss on the postseason. (read out preview)
6. Western New York Flash: The young, speedy Flash have the raw talent to contend for a playoff spot but are also green enough to sink near the bottom. If left to his own methods, Paul Riley could still them a few results through tactics but the real key will be developing players like Lynn Williams, Adriana Leon, and Makenzy Doniak into reliable goalscorers. (read our preview)
7. FC Kansas City: The two-time defending champions pulled a few rabbits out of the hat over the winter but it likely wasn’t enough to keep them on top the league. Lauren Holidday’s midfield presence extended well beyond her goal/assist numbers and right now they just don’t have enough quality scoring or enough foundation at the outside back positions. (read our preview)
8. Orlando Pride: The new kids on the block have some players worth watching and could challenge the Thorns for the attendance mark but they just did not have enough time to put together a team that is deep enough to get to and stay at the top. Despite the low placement don’t be surprised if they’re up contending late for a playoff berth, and definitely expect them to lay the cultural foundation to be very good in the years to come. (read our preview)
9. Sky Blue FC: Departures hurt Sky Blue on all four lines this offseason, especially goalkeeper where Caroline Stanley’s 90 minutes of NWSL experience makes her the veteran in the group. To contend they will need a quick learning curve for 1st round pick Raquel Rodriguez and a speedy rediscovering of form from Tasha Kai. A healthy Christie Rampone in back will also be vital. (read our preview)
10. Boston Breakers: The Breakers will certainly be better, and more importantly, they will be tougher to play against. But they traded Alyssa Naeher to Chicago which could neutralize some of the defensive improvement and it will take quality seasons from an unproven cast of characters to score enough goals to make enough of an impact. (read our preview)
NWSL Championship: The Reign make amends for the last two years and make the Spirit the fourth consecutive Shield winner to fall in the final.
MVP: Christen Press
Coach of the Year: Jim Gabarra
Goalkeeper of the Year: Hope Solo
Defender of the Year: Julie Johnston
Rookie of the Year: Raquel Rodriguez
1. Seattle Reign FC: Just too much depth and firepower. Some questions about scoring goals, but they scored 9 more than any other team in NWSL last season, and unless something happens to Little, Fishlock, or Winters, they should continue to own the center of the field against anyone and everyone.
2. Portland Thorns FC: Speaking of firepower, there is plenty here, even if Mark Parsons is going to have to find a way to piece it together. But no matter what XI he chooses, it’s hard to see the Thorns missing the playoffs like last season, even with the number of players gone for the Olympics.
3. Chicago Red Stars: The Red Stars currently don’t have a player over 27 (which will change when Alyssa Naeher has a birthday next week), but they seem to have the cohesion that Portland lacked. On paper, they look better, but can they have everything fall in place for them again this time around?
4. FC Kansas City: It’s kind of amazing how well Vlatko Andonovski has done for a guy whose professional experience was mostly with men’s indoor teams until four years ago. FCKC have lost plenty, but – led by Becky Sauerbrunn – it won’t be shocking for the defending champs to find a way to get back into the playoffs.
5. Houston Dash: The Dash showed spurts of quality, and you have to think Randy Waldrum will figure out how to improve this season. The Dash, with Carli Lloyd, Morgan Brian, and Kealia Ohai, somehow scored the fewest goals in the league last season. They now add budding stars Janine Beckie and Rachel Daly, and should have that problem solved.
6. Washington Spirit: The Spirit made the playoffs last season thanks to a campaign for the ages from Crystal Dunn. She will be fine, but will have to go to the Olympics, and their second-leading scorer was Christine Nairn with five goals. Will there be a striker to help Nairn and Dunn out?
7. Orlando Pride: The Pride basically sold their proverbial souls to get Alex Morgan, and given the market, it’s hard to blame them too much. But even though Morgan looks in good form, is there enough around her to compete? Ashlyn Harris and Lianne Sanderson will help, but probably not enough to get to the top half of the table.
8. Western New York Flash: Paul Riley, somewhat amazingly, landed on his feet after last season’s Portland fiasco. The Flash have some underrated talent, led by Sam Mewis along with players like Lynn Williams and Jaelene Hinkle. So they could surprise, but there aren’t any proven stars to do it with. Maybe that suits Riley better?
9. Sky Blue FC: The midfield, led by top pick Raquel Rodriguez actually looks pretty solid, but there is no Nadia Nadim (Portland) or Katy Freels (on sabbatical), so who knows how they’re going to score. (Unless Natasha Kai has an amazing comeback?) In the back, without Lindsay Cuthsall, they will be dependent on Christie Rampone to turn back the clock.
10. Boston Breakers: Under Matt Beard, there’s a plan at least, which you can see in adding players like McCall Zerboni and Angela Salem. But it’s a plan that will probably take a couple of years. The Breakers have Whitney Engen as its only USWNT designee and will need a few more pieces for Beard to play NWSL chess on a level field.
NWSL Champion: Seattle Reign FC
MVP: Becky Sauerbrunn, Kansas City (she probably won’t win, but she’ll deserve it)
Coach of Year: Laura Harvey
Goalkeeper of the Year: Ashlyn Harris
Defender of the Year: Sauerbrunn
Rookie of the Year: Rachel Daly
1. Seattle Reign FC: As I said in my preview on the Reign, when you’ve won back-to-back league titles, you don’t need to change much.
A strong defense, a midfield trio that’s unrivalled, and a forward line that’s seen pace added in the form of Manon Melis, means the Reign should once again come out on top. The team will, however, miss the quality and delivery of Steph Cox (retired) and Megan Rapinoe (injured) when the season commences.
2. Washington Spirit: Jim Gabarra is an experienced head coach and he should build on the foundations laid by Mark Parsons. Washington is well balanced from back to front and although they’ll not have Crystal Dunn as much as last year, they should have enough to better 2015. A fit again Diana Matheson is a boost for any team, while Christine Nairn is the player that makes the team tick. The USWNT is calling.
3. Chicago Red Stars: When everyone is available, few are better than the Red Stars and when you have Christen Press, you have goals. Sofia Huerta and Jen Hoy will carry the load in her absence, while Danielle Colaprico will take confidence from her Rookie of the Year Award and recent USWNT call up. I don’t expect a repeat of last season, but i do expect the play-offs.
4. Houston Dash: Houston struggled for goals last year (lowest scorers in the league) so coach Randy Waldrum has gone out and addressed that. Rachel Daly and Janine Beckie were shrewd pick ups in the draft, while Chioma Ubogagu and Ireland’s Denise O’Sullivan add attacking threat. Defensively the team may struggle with a commanding center back absent, but the Dash look good for the play-offs.
5. Portland Thorns FC: Mark Parsons has a big job on his hands and could be without up to seven players when the Olympics arrive – a bigger number than he initially expected. Out go the likes of Alex Morgan, in come the likes of Lindsey Horan. Portland at full strength look good on paper, but they’ll need time to gel, which may mean just missing out on the top four.
6. FC Kansas City: Seems insane to drop back-to-back champions out of the play-offs completely, but when you lose Amy Rodriguez, Lauren Holiday and Amy LePeilbet, you lose a lot of quality. Kansas City still has the best defender in the world in Becky Sauerbrunn, but she’ll miss large parts of the year. Shea Groom has a good rookie campaign until injury, and she’ll need to be good again.
7. Orlando Pride: The new kids on the block, but with an old head at the helm in Tom Sermanni. Never easy for an expansion team to impact immediately – just ask Houston – but they should at least he competitive. Becky Edwards was a great pick up in midfield, while Sarah Hagen will carry the load up top with Alex Morgan away, and with question marks still over her injuries. At the back they look pretty solid, especially with Ashlyn Harris between the pipes (when available).
8. Western New York Flash: My wildcard team – they could be brilliant, they could be terrible, I really don’t know. Abby Dahlkemper was a stand out last year, while Lynn Williams up front now has help in the form of Makenzy Doniak. There’s an unpredictability about the team as well with the likes of Colombian Lady Andrade and South Korean Jeon Ga-Eul in the team, but it might be that they need some time to settle.
9. Boston Breakers: New coach Matt Beard has admitted this is very much a year of learning for him, but he’ll have to learn quickly. He’s brought in some familiar faces from his time at Liverpool. Libby Stout is a solid keeper, while Louise Schillgard adds to the attacking qualities of Steph McCaffrey and Kristie Mewis. Goals were a problem last year, and they could be again this.
10. Sky Blue FC: Departures have hurt the team with the most recent news that Caitlin Foord will not join the team a blow. Raquel Rodriguez will be a star, but she can’t do it on her own. Losing Brittany Cameron and Katy Freels is huge in two important areas of the field, but a fit Christie Rampone is always a plus. However, not enough depth for me, which is likely to see them struggle.
NWSL Champion: Seattle Reign FC
MVP: Kim Little
Coach of Year: Laura Harvey
Goalkeeper of the Year: Alyssa Naeher
Defender of the Year: Becky Sauerbrunn
Rookie of the Year: Rachel Daly
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