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NWSL Week 1 Preview: Things to watch from every game

One new team. 20 new faces. 9 players returning after playing elsewhere. 2 new coaches. 161 days of offseason. 9,990 minutes of soccer (and then some) to be played. This offseason was slightly shorter, heartbreaking (RIP Breakers), full of highs and lows, and just plain confusing at times, but it’s over, and the sixth NWSL season is here.

Will both teams survive?

Portland Thorns FC (0-0-0) at North Carolina Courage (0-0-0)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT (Lifetime)
All-Time Series: Thorns lead, 6-3-3 (plus 2-1-0 playoffs)

The first game of the 2018 season is … a rematch of the last game of the 2017 season. The 2017 NWSL Championship was about as far from a classic game of soccer as you’ll find, and two players had been helped off the field by the time the Thorns raised the trophy. One of those, Taylor Smith, missed subsequent international duty, as did Tobin Heath, who played a role in Smith’s early exit from the match. Smith is now with the Washington Spirit, but Heath has yet to play a minute of competitive soccer since and will not feature in this game.

Thorns injuries:  OUT – Tobin Heath, Emily Menges; INT – Hayley Raso
Courage injuries: OUT – Elizabeth Eddy, Sam Mewis, Yuri Kawamura, Julie King

In fact, Portland will be without a handful of players. Defender Emily Menges, Portland’s best player in the final, will miss this rematch. Amandine Henry and Nadia Nadim are gone, but their replacements haven’t arrived yet. Nor has Hayley Raso, who like all other NWSL Australians (and Japanese) will miss the first month of games due to the Asian Cup. Meanwhile, North Carolina returns the majority of their Shield-winning roster, and they’ve added a major piece in Crystal Dunn.

The 2017 final probably cemented what was already a burgeoning rivalry after the 2016 semifinal in Portland, when the then-Western New York Flash edged the Thorns in extra time after a thrilling, balls-to-the-wall game that set the standard for NWSL playoff games. Regular season matches tend to be slightly more restrained than win-or-go-home playoffs, but when two rival teams both known for physicality meet, it’s no holds barred. The real question is, how many ankles will make it out intact?

Who are the Royals?

Utah Royals FC (0-0-0) at Orlando Pride (0-0-0)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. EDT, Orlando City Stadium
All-Time Series: first meeting

When the Flash became the Courage, there was so much continuity, it was easy to make the argument it was more or less the same team. Not so with the Royals – this is not FCKC version 2.0. Not only do they have a new head coach with an entirely different style, but Laura Harvey has made sweeping changes to the roster. With Amy Rodriguez still working her way back after her season-opening ACL tear last year, Becky Sauerbrunn’s status still a game day decision, and Nicole Barnhart briefly sidelined after offseason surgery (Abby Smith is expected to start in goal), it’s hard to say what we’ll see in Orlando. Expect Diana Matheson to get her first NWSL minutes since her penalty kick was saved to end the 2016 championship.

Royals injuries:  OUT – Alex Arlitt, Mandy Laddish, Amy Rodriguez
Pride injuries: OUT – Camila; INT: Alanna Kennedy; Emily van Egmond

Utah, however, knows exactly who they’re facing. It took some time, but Tom Sermanni figured out what worked for the Pride last year, and beyond a few personnel changes, expect more of the same. The Sydney Leroux-Marta-Alex Morgan front line is probably the most potent in the league on paper, and if that translates to reality, Smith will be kept busy. They’ll miss Alanna Kennedy in midfield for a few weeks but picked up Christine Nairn as a reinforcement.

Can Washington overcome their youth?

Washington Spirit (0-0-0) at Seattle Reign FC (0-0-0)
Saturday, 10:00 p.m. EDT, Memorial Stadium
All-Time Series: Reign lead, 8-4-1 (plus 2-0-0 playoffs)

Washington’s story last year was one plagued by injury, but perhaps overlooked in their struggles was the role played by their lack of experience. Their games were often a tale of two halves in which they’d dominate one half or the other but couldn’t pull it together to win enough games. While much of the team has a year under their belts, they’re still very young, and two of their best offseason acquisitions are rookies. Veterans like Tori Huster and Estelle Johnson will have to step up to provide much-needed leadership and get this team moving in the right direction. Joanna Lohman will return from last year’s ACL tear, but she’ll likely have to do more leading from the bench than in past years.

Spirit injuries:  OUT – Cali Farquharson, Rose Lavelle, Arielle Ship
Reign injuries: OUT – Yael Averbuch, Kiersten Dallstream

They’re facing a team that’s anything but young, but one that has enough new pieces, they may struggle to find chemistry for a few games. From the backline to up top, the 2018 Reign will look different, and even the players who’ve been there since the beginning will have to adapt to the style of a new coach, albeit one with credentials, Vlatko Andonovski. However, alongside the Royals, the Reign are currently one of the most intriguing teams in the league due to the changes. Part of Seattle culture was Laura Harvey, but she’s gone now, so it remains to be seen who the Reign are today.

Will Chicago’s formation change pay off?

Chicago Red Stars (0-0-0) at Houston Dash (0-0-0)
Sunday, 5:00 p.m. EDT, BBVA Compass Stadium
All-Time Series: Red Stars lead, 5-2-4

Many would view three successive trips to the playoffs as success. However, when no trip has ever gotten past the semifinal, the luster quickly wears off. With his seat heating up, Rory Dames may finally venture away from his tried-and-true diamond formation into a 4-3-3. They’ll probably struggle without Sam Kerr to fill Christen Press’s role until the end of April, but what’s most interesting about this lineup is how Dames fills the midfield. When all are healthy (which they are not; both Julie Ertz and Vanessa DiBernardo are carrying injuries), he has a wealth of quality midfielders. Two players to watch in this new formation are Nikki Stanton and Danielle Colaprico. Dames was full of praise for Stanton after the preseason, but it’s not clear yet exactly how he’ll use her. Colaprico was one of the league’s best in 2016 but went very quiet in 2017 after Ertz’s insertion into midfield moved Colaprico out of her preferred spot.

Red Stars injuries:  OUT – Vanessa DiBernardo, Julie Ertz, Yuki Nagasato, Casey Short, Rosie White; INT – Sam Kerr
Dash injuries: OUT – Kyah Simon; EXA – Thembi Kgatlana

Houston has had Chicago’s number on opening day for the last two years. That said, Houston also had a rough offseason after a struggling year. They could come out highly defensively organized and stifle the Red Stars’ attempts to play wide, or they could get caught out in transition and allow Sofia Huerta to have her way with them. It’s a battle of first tests: Vera Pauw’s first NWSL game versus Dames’ new formation.

{Related: 2018 Team previews | Opening day rosters}

HOT … OR NOT?

This is a new section I’ll be featuring in my weekly previews highlighting those players and teams trending up or down. For the first iteration, I’m taking a look at offseason moves.

Hot

Washington Spirit: They picked up two of the top three draftees, snagged Rose Lavelle in the dispersal draft, and added Taylor Smith – and they’re only currently paying for two of them (if she continues to be called up, Andi Sullivan’s inexplicable lack of allocation will have to be addressed).

Seattle Reign: Vlatko Andonovski greatly strengthened a leaky backline, adding Yael Averbuch, Megan Oyster, Christen Westphal, and Steph Catley. Up top, scoring dynamo Jodie Taylor will feature heavily.

Not

Houston Dash: The Dash traded Carli Lloyd and Janine Beckie for … nothing, currently, until the Christen Press saga gets sorted one way or another, and that’s just one in a series of ultimately meaningless moves. A lack of true defenders on the roster also gives the Dash the worst defense in the league on paper.

Sky Blue FC: This could change after a few games, but the jury is still out on Denise Reddy’s overhaul of the Jersey team. She could have made better moves to shore up the defense, and it’s unclear as of yet if the new corps of forwards can fill Sam Kerr’s shoes (a tall order for anyone).

Bye week: Sky Blue FC
Note: players with season-ending injuries/maternity leaves not listed each week; INT=absence due to international duty; EXA=absence excused by team not for injury or international duty

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