We’re two weeks in to 2018, a week away from the first USWNT match and a couple of months away from the start of the NWSL season. I took a look at the league, the national team and women’s soccer around the world and came up with XI wishes that I want to see come true in 2018. While my expectations may not be entirely realistic (see wish X), I think they’re all reasonable.
I. Hope from the Houston Dash
After a respectable finish in 2015, the Dash have gone on to underwhelming results in two straight seasons. Although the defense can be suspect, they have the talent to compete, and it’s past time they got their money’s worth. With a fresh, experienced coaching staff in Vera Pauw and Lisa Cole and talent from Jane Campbell in goal to Rachel Daly up top, they have many of the right pieces (although drafting or signing a top defender should be a priority).
What they also have is a fanbase that was incredibly unhappy at the end of last season thanks to a front office that has never really shown that much interest in making the Dash a competitive team and compounded problems by rescheduling a “home” game to a venue 340 miles away when there was a conflict at BBVA Compass Stadium. They’ve also developed a reputation as a place players don’t want to be, resulting in the departure of their first ever draft pick, Morgan Brian. For everyone both on and off the field, the Dash need to show signs of hope.
II. A USWNT defense that doesn’t give me heart palpitations
The days of the Department of Defense are long over. Really over. From the ill-used three-back to a rotating cast at right back to some truly bizarre goalkeeping errors, defense for the USWNT in 2017 was nothing if not a mixed bag. For every time Becky Sauerbrunn saved the day, there was a time when we wondered if she and Abby Dahlkemper were even reading the same book, much less on the same page. For every bombing run forward made by an outside back, there was an equal gap left on a counterattack. Regardless of who is on the pitch, it would be nice if the defense showed more signs of cohesion, especially as uncertainty looms between the posts despite a clear number one (more on that below).
III. All the ACL injuries to come back better than ever
Injuries happen every year, and 2017 was no exception. Four players entered the season with an ACL tear, and a further eight would see their season cut short with the same injury—and that’s not even counting Stephanie Ribeiro, who was drafted by FC Kansas City but tore her ACL before preseason ever started. It’s one of, if not the, most heartbreaking injuries in soccer, partially because it’s so common (especially in women’s soccer) and partially because it can be devastating to a player’s career, removing them from the game for a year and sometimes denying the player from ever returning to their previous level of play. That’s why not only does 2018 need to be free of ACL tears, but I want to see all the players who are currently rehabbing to return to the pitch better than ever.
IV. A Sky Blue defense that doesn’t waste Sam Kerr’s goals
In its short history, the NWSL has seen few seasons like that of Sam Kerr’s 2017. She smashed just about every scoring record in the books – single season, all-time, first to score multiple hat tricks in a season, first to score four goals in one game – and notched both the Golden Boot and the MVP award. With such a year, how did Sky Blue end up in sixth place?
Their defense. Or, most correctly, their lack thereof. Sky Blue had the worst defense in the league, giving up 51 goals over 24 games. While Kerr did her best (her biggest games were improbable comeback wins), she couldn’t do it all, and she received little to no help from her backline. It was incredibly frustrating to watch, so one can only imagine how frustrating it was to score over and over only to see the ball hit the back of your own net even more often. That story needs to change in 2018. Having both Erica Skroski and Erin Simon consistently healthy should help, as will Kailen Sheridan with a year of professional experience under her belt. But they need more. Trading away Kelley O’Hara didn’t help matters, although bringing in veteran Rebekah Stott could do wonders. One or two more solid defenders might help Sky Blue quit wasting Sam Kerr’s goals.
V. More of the Marta-Morgan connection
Success in soccer often relies on partnerships. When two players click, their chemistry can create some of the most scintillating moments in a match. For the latter part of 2017, nowhere was chemistry more evident than between Alex Morgan and Marta. Perhaps it was the fact that this was their second go-around on a club team together, or perhaps it was just a byproduct of the form that Morgan has displayed recently no matter which kit she wears. Regardless of how it happened, it was glorious to watch, and it propelled Orlando to the most fruitful offense in the league and the playoffs in their second year of existence.
Unfortunately, their defense let them down in the semifinal, but for many, Orlando was not even in the playoff discussion at the beginning of the year. With a full season of these two ahead of them, no 2018 playoff discussion should leave them out. Any soccer fan regardless of team affiliation should look forward to seeing more of the Marta-Morgan magic on the pitch.
VI. A Shield and/or Championship winner that isn’t the Thorns or Courage
There is something to be said for seeing the fruits of your labor ripen after seasons of building. Whether it’s starting in the draft like the former Western New York Flash or managing to bring together immense talent on one team like Portland, it’s satisfying to see teams both find and maintain success. Roster continuity also helps a fanbase develop loyalty to teams instead of following players around the country.
That said, it’s been two years of the same two teams winning the Shield or the Championship (the Flash and the Courage are the same team; you can yell at me on twitter @chelseywrites if you want), and it’s time for something new. If the NWSL wants to continue promoting itself as a league of parity, they want to avoid turning into one of predictable title winners. One of the most boring parts of the 2017 season, unless you were a Courage fan, was seeing their name at the top of the ladder week after week. So this is a challenge to all other teams: step it up. We want a new champion.
VII. The Red Stars to discover the use of width
Chicago has made it into the playoffs for three successive seasons, so obviously something is working. That said, they’ve also fallen short each time, and had Seattle done just a bit more in the last two seasons, they could have jumped over the Red Stars for the final playoff spot. In my opinion, Chicago’s roster has become a little stale, and their formation formulaic. Inserting Julie Ertz into the midfield reenergized the squad, but it also pushed Danielle Colaprico out of her normal position and as a result, we did not see the best of her. They also only have one true wide attacker in Sofia Huerta, and while Casey Short and Arin Gilliland are some of the best fullbacks in the league, both are much stronger defensively than in the attack.
What Chicago needs is width. Make full use of the pitch and stretch opposing defenses. Coordinate an offense that doesn’t always flow through Christen Press. Ironically, late acquisition Kristie Mewis would have helped with this but was immediately traded again to Houston for Morgan Brian, who played less than 90 minutes and has now left the Red Stars with her rights upon her return from France in 2020. Rory Dames is always good in the draft, so hopefully he uses one of his seven picks to either find a wide midfielder or trade for one to bring width to the Red Stars in 2018.
VIII. A shocking international signing in the NWSL
Nadine Angerer. Amandine Henry. Marta. The NWSL may not have the international all-star rosters that appeared in previous leagues, but it has had its fair share of big international signings. So why not another one? We’ve seen players take pay cuts in order to play in the U.S., citing the facilities, the crowds, the teammates and more as reasons to come here. It’s not always about money. While salary caps make it difficult to compete with the likes of Chelsea or Lyon, there are more than enough reasons to entice international players to spend a year or two in the NWSL. What 2018 needs is a big name international signing.
IX. More fair pay agreements, less strikes
It felt at times that 2017 was the year when female soccer players just got fed up. Two months after reaching the EURO 2017 final, Denmark went on strike and forfeited a World Cup qualifying match against Sweden. Ireland threatened a strike. The USWNT filed a wage discrimination complaint. Scotland, Brazil, Nigeria, Australia and others have had recent grievances and labor disputes with their federations. Reflecting a broader societal issue, women’s soccer teams have said enough is enough.
While Norway led the way with an historic equitable pay agreement between the men’s and women’s sides, it took Ada Hegerberg, one of the best players in the world at only 22, stepping away from international play to get to that point. The striker cited a lack of respect for the women’s side as one of her reasons. However, the agreement still sets the standard, surpassing the USWNT’s new CBA. Let Norway be the example so we see less strikes and more fair agreements (and more soccer) in 2018.
X. Goalkeepers not named Naeher or Harris to see actual USWNT playing time
Jane Campbell spent the majority of 2017 with the USWNT and has two caps (totaling all of about an hour of playing time) to her name. Abby Smith and Adrianna Franch have been in and out of camp; neither has been capped. The vast majority of the minutes in 2017 went to Alyssa Naeher as Jill Ellis’ clear choice as number one goalkeeper. Which is all well and good as Naeher only has 25 caps to her name, but the reason she has so few caps after nearly a decade in the system is because the USWNT coaching staff spent a decade ignoring the development of backup keepers except when Hope Solo was injured or suspended. What’s concerning is that they’re repeating the same mistake, thus ensuring a vicious cycle. This is a conundrum of their own making. The only way to avoid repeating it over and over is to take a chance at some point in time and rotate keepers just like they do every other position.
What happens if (knock on wood) Naeher tears her ACL in a sendoff match and the backup has seen five caps in the last two years? More importantly, I’m not at all convinced she is the best choice for the starting goalkeeper. Naeher can be outstanding, but she’s also shown moments of poor decision making, unease in coming off her line and at times a lack of communication with her backline. Are Campbell or Smith or Franch (or Ashlyn Harris, although my focus is on young keepers) better? We don’t really know because we haven’t seen them in the same situations. None of the games scheduled this year, not even the two mini tournaments, matter until World Cup qualifiers. Play your young keepers in 2018.
XI. More international streams
It must be said that we’re rather spoiled with streams in the NWSL. As problematic as go90 was, we still had the ability to watch every single non-Lifetime game for free. Moreover, international fans had the ability to do the same, and the international streaming was so superior to go90 at times that even domestic fans would use a VPN to access it.
The same can’t be said for accessing international streams in the U.S. Australia’s W-League, where many Americans spend the winter, streams a game or two most weeks (though not all) for a fee – assuming you’re willing to get up in the middle of the night. Sweden’s Damallsvenskan is also available for a fee via the same app as the W-League. ESPN aired the EUROs and the last few rounds of the Champions League. That’s really it as far as legal international streams go. I’m sure there are more dubious ways to access international games, but it’s 2018. The technology is there. Aren’t we overdue for more accessible international streams?