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The Lowdown: My 2018 NWSL season predictions

Photo Copyright Lewis Gettier

The sixth National Women’s Soccer League season kicks off on Saturday the same way the fifth season ended—with the Thorns battling the Courage. That means it is time to open myself up to ridicule by posting my predictions for the season. I have invited my Equalizer colleagues to add theirs as well so those who were brave enough to agree will have them posted at the bottom.

Enjoy and feel free to disagree with me by way of Twitter @TheDanLauletta.

1) North Carolina Courage

The Shield holders will open the season with a few injuries — notably Samantha Mewis, who will miss her first pro game due to injury this weekend. But they made minimal changes this offseason and the biggest one was bringing in Crystal Dunn, who is a former Golden Boot and MVP winner.

Dunn and Lynn Williams will be the first former boot/MVP winners to play together, and with Jess McDonald, they form a trio of attackers with 10-goal seasons on their resumes. Their depth and familiarity of system will carry them back to the top of what should be a tight table.

2) Orlando Pride

Offseason moves make the Pride a volatile team in predictions and, admittedly, this is buying high. I’m banking on Tom Sermanni being able to get the most out of new acquisitions Shelina Zadorsky and Christine Nairn, and for the Marta/Alex Morgan combination to click the way it did last season. The Pride do rely heavily on Brazilian and Australian players who will miss time early for World Cup qualifying, but like 2017, they should be flying at the end.

3) Seattle Reign FC

After two seasons outside the playoffs, the Reign retooled, starting with bringing in Vlatko Andonovski as head coach. Among the new additions are Yael Averbuch, Megan Oyster and Allie Long, all of whom should steady the spine of the team and keep opponents from filling the net as freely as they did at times in 2017.

Steph Catley, who should be healthy by the time qualifying is over, is the best two-way outside back in NWSL. The Reign could find themselves searching for goals, but Jodie Taylor has produced in NWSL before, as has Bev Yanez. Megan Rapinoe was neck and neck with Sam Kerr for the Golden Boot last year until returning from Tournament of Nations with an injury. It could be a slow start, but expect the Reign to get better as the season progresses.

4) Portland Thorns FC

The defending champs brought back their entire defensive unit and that figures to make them difficult to break down and probably instant contenders. The Thorns did lose Amandine Henry and Nadia Nadim, who won’t be easy to replace — at least right away. One of the replacements, Caitlin Foord, took an injury during the W-League playoffs and won’t be ready until mid-season. The 2017 Thorns also saw four players — Adrianna Franch, Emily Sonnett, Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair — start all 24 matches, and Emily Menges missed only one match for personal reasons. Can they get that lucky again?

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5) Chicago Red Stars

Julie Ertz’s health could dictate how Chicago’s season will go. (Photo Copyright Lewis Gettier)

The Red Stars are the only team to reach the playoffs each of the last three seasons, but all three times they have stalled out at the semifinal stage. Then a trade fell in their lap that essentially saw them move Christen Press in exchange for Samantha Kerr. The Red Stars won’t see how that trade affects the team until Kerr returns from World Cup qualifying. They are also opening the season with Julie Ertz and Vanessa DiBernardo injured. Any team with Kerr has a chance to win, but it feels like that won’t be enough for Chicago.

6) Utah Royals FC

The Royals are a team with a fairly high ceiling and an alarmingly low floor. Becky Sauerbrunn has missed both U.S. women’s national team camps with a foot injury and having her healthy and playing solid in central defense will be vital for success for the quasi-new team.

Up top, it seems like things have been built around the notion that Amy Rodriguez will return to her goal-scoring self. But A-Rod is starting the season on the 45-day disabled list and has not played regularly now since 2015. If Elise Thorsnes takes the league by storm it could help the Royals contend, but they seem too thin with too many question marks at this point.

7) Washington Spirit

I’m picking the Spirit to finish in the top of the bottom third, but this is a team that added several quality pieces and if things break perfectly, they could hit September inside the top four. The Mallory Pugh-Andi Sullivan-Rose Lavelle trio could be a fixture for years and there is veteran quality in Tori Huster and Joanna Lohman. In a league that figures to be tight, experience will hold the Spirit down for one more season.

8) Sky Blue FC

The New Jersey club did not have a bad offseason with new coach Denise Reddy. Considering Kerr forced their hand into a trade, they did well to get Carli Lloyd and Jen Hoy as part of the return. Kelley O’Hara was also traded, which brought back Christina Gibbons and Shea Groom. Katie Johnson and Rebekah Stott arrived from Seattle essentially for free, costing the club only the rights to Caitlin Foord, who had not played for them since 2015 and had no intention of ever doing so again. After the Breakers went under, Sky Blue grabbed No. 2 overall draft pick Savannah McCaskill. But the roster is young and imbalanced, and it looks like Reddy will need a year to cultivate things enough to reach the top half of the table.

9) Houston Dash

By just about any metric, the Dash did not have a very good offseason. It came to a head two weeks ago, when word broke that Christen Press has no intention of reporting to the club. There could still be a trade worked out to get some value in return, but for now the Dash gave Carli Lloyd away more or less for free.

Andressinha and Poliana were also traded without much immediate value coming back. At the moment, they will be relying on Savannah Jordan and Nichelle Prince to score (Kealia Ohai is not quite ready yet) and a back line that could feature three players — Amber Brooks, Rachel Daly and Kristie Mewis — whose collective experience in defense is limited. Can coach Vera Pauw get the Dash to win more than they lose at home? It has never happened before.

Awards and Playoffs

NWSL Championship

The Reign will be the best, most complete team by the time September rolls around and will stifle Marta & Co. in the semifinal to advance to their third NWSL Championship in five years. This time, they will finally lift the trophy by getting past the Courage. In the other semifinal, the Courage will eek past the Thorns in a rematch of the 2017 final (and 2016 semifinal, when the Courage were the Flash.)

Let’s go with Jodie Taylor as NWSL Championship MVP.

Most Valuable Player: Marta

Game for game, possession for possession, no player has a more positive impact on her team’s performance than Marta. She will finally get the recognition she deserves this time around.

Golden Boot: Marta

See above. She will miss some time for qualifying, but so will many of the other top scorers in the league. Alex Morgan, Lynn Williams (depending on U.S. call-up schedules for both) or someone like Bev Yanez could threaten. File Shea Groom as a dark horse here.

There’s only one Marta. (Photo Copyright Lewis Gettier)

Defender of the Year: Emily Menges

The Thorns’ center back is nothing but steady, so much that she suffered more fouls (10) than she committed (6) in 2017, an almost impossible feat for a central defender. The uncapped player at the top of most people’s list of desired call-ups will get her just due at the league level.

Goalkeeper of the Year: Ashlyn Harris

The American goalkeeper pool remains deep but is looking for a clear leader. Harris is mistake prone, but look for her to have a big year to help the Pride earn their first home semifinal.

Rookie of the Year: Andi Sullivan

Always a touchy category to predict (as if the others are easy), but Sullivan is clearly the best player among what is currently a small group of rookies. She’ll just need to stay healthy and not get worn out by shuttling in and out of the national team.

Coach of the Year: Vlatko Andonovski

With the Reign making the jump into the playoffs and tightening things up defensively, Andonovski will reclaim the honor he won at FC Kansas City in the league’s inaugural campaign five years ago.

Equalizer Staff Predictions

– Ray Curren (@rjcurren)

1) Portland Thorns –  There are plenty of injury concerns, but there’s also plenty of depth and an underrated defense that conceded only 20 goals last season. They may need Caitlin Foord and Tobin Heath to win everything, but picking up Ellie Carpenter, Margaret Purce and Andressinha should all pay dividends over the course of the season.

2) Chicago Red Stars – Again, injuries could be a big problem, as could missing Sam Kerr for a month during World Cup qualifiers. Sofia Huerta will be a big key to their early-season success, and if they can survive until the warm months, they could be a factor in the race for the NWSL Shield.

3) North Carolina Courage – Did I mention injuries already? Well, Sam Mewis’s may be the biggest question mark of all to start the NWSL season. With her, the Courage have a dominant, attacking midfield that has overwhelmed the best of its competition in the last couple of seasons. Without her? Not quite the same. Watch out for Darian Jenkins, who missed last season with a broken leg.

4) Utah Royals – They have done everything right off the field leading up to the season. Personally, I’m all for a lineup with Diana Matheson, Katrina Gorry, Lo’eau LaBonta and Desiree Scott on the same field. Their fate may depend on how quickly internationals like Gunnhildur Jonsdottir and Elise Thorsnes adjust to life in the NWSL.

5) Orlando Pride – By adding Sydney Leroux to Alex Morgan, Marta and Rachel Hill, the Pride might have the scariest attack in the NWSL. Can it hold things together in the back? There are a lot of recognizable names, but not too many in top form at the moment. That could change, however.

6) Sky Blue FC – There’s still a lot to like about this young team. But might it be too young (outside of Carli Lloyd, of course.) Sky Blue – led by Shea Groom, Adriana Leon and Savannah McCaskill – should still score plenty of goals, but it didn’t do a whole lot to improve its defense. Can Denise Reddy solve that dilemma? If she does, they could be a playoff team.

7) Seattle Reign – It says plenty about the depth in the league to even think about having the Reign this low. It’s entirely possible they might have Christen Press by this weekend as well. If Jodie Taylor can pair with Megan Rapinoe to score enough goals, they could easily be a playoff team as well.

Will Vlatko Andonovski bring Seattle back to the playoffs? (Photo Copyright Lewis Gettier)

8) Washington Spirit – Back to the injury theme, Mallory Pugh has looked in the last month like she can be a dominant player in NWSL sooner rather than later. But can she hold up with a full slate of games and international duty in between? Rose Lavelle hasn’t played a competitive game since September, and if the pair plays together for the majority of the season, they should be right in the playoff race.

9) Houston Dash – With Christen Press, they still would have trouble matching up with the other rosters in the league. Without her? It seems as if Vera Pauw is bringing organization and discipline to the Houston defense, but I’m not so sure where that will take the Dash, at least for 2018.

Final: Utah over North Carolina
MVP: Lindsey Horan
Golden Boot: Alex Morgan

Lewis Gettier (@LewisNC)

1) North Carolina – The 2017 Shield winners bring back almost all the pieces from last year’s team while adding Crystal Dunn and addressing their defensive depth issues.
2) Orlando – Having Alex Morgan for the full season, playing with Marta and Leroux, I’m expecting them to lead the league in goals scored.
3) Portland – I think Portland will get off to a slow start again, with injuries and absences, but will gel before the end of the season to make the playoffs.
4) Seattle – You never know how a team will play with a new coach, but Seattle should give up fewer goals this season with improvements to their defense and in goal.
5) Chicago – Sam Kerr is a great addition to a team that has been consistently good, but they may drop too many points early with injuries.
6) Washington – Washington certainly has added the talent necessary to climb up the table, but they probably need another year of experience before making the playoffs.
7) Utah – I’m excited to see what Laura Harvey can do with this squad, but I don’t think they have all the pieces they need to finish much higher in the table.
8) Sky Blue – Sky Blue’s biggest issue last season was their defense, and I’m not sure they’ve addressed it, or that all the attackers they’ve added can compensate for the loss of Kerr.
9) Houston – I’m afraid Vera Pauw could be in for a rough first season in the NWSL unless Houston can pick up some good defenders for Christen Press’s rights.

Final: NC over Portland
Golden Boot: Sam Kerr
MVP: Sam Kerr

Chelsey Bush (@ChelseyWrites)

1) North Carolina
2) Orlando
3) Portland
4) Seattle
5) Chicago
6) Utah
7) Washington
8) Sky Blue
9) Houston

Orlando to win the championship, Alex Morgan with the Golden Boot, Marta as MVP. A Pride sweep.

Goalkeeper of the Year: Katelyn Rowland
Defender of the Year: Emily Menges
Rookie of the Year: Andi Sullivan
Coach of the Year: Tom Sermanni (if Orlando wins a piece of hardware, Vlatko if not)

Harjeet Johal (@HarJournalist)

1) Orlando Pride
2) North Carolina Courage
3) Portland Thorns FC
4) Utah Royals FC
5) Seattle Reign FC
6) Chicago Red Stars
7) Washington Spirit
8) Sky Blue FC
9) Houston Dash

Final: Utah Royals over North Carolina Courage
Golden Boot: Jodie Taylor
MVP: Marta
Defender of the Year: Abby Dahlkemper
Comeback Player: Crystal Dunn
Rookie of the Year: Rebecca Quinn
Goalkeeper of the Year: Kailen Sheridan and Sabrina D’Angelo vs. the field.

Kieran Theivam (@KiersTheivam)

1) Orlando
2) North Carolina
3) Portland
4) Seattle
5) Chicago
6) Utah
7) Washington
8) Sky Blue
9) Houston

Final: Orlando over North Carolina
Golden Boot: Jodie Taylor
MVP: Marta

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