This week, let’s take a look at the NWSL teams and see where they stack up based on current rosters. Of course, trying to determine these things in a World Cup year is fool’s gold, but here is a good shot at it.
Chicago Red Stars
There is no team under as much pressure to win the NWSL Championship this season as the Red Stars. Head coach Rory Dames has done a magnificent job building a roster and keeping it together all while stockpiling draft picks year after year. That work has resulted in four consecutive playoff appearances, but all four trips to the playoffs have stalled out in the semifinals.
The Red Stars added Tierna Davidson in this year’s college draft and they won’t have much time to get her integrated before the World Cup. In fact, the process likely won’t happen in full before July. The common theory is that Davidson will partner Katie Naughton in central defense while Julie Ertz moves up to midfield. But could Dames go with an Ertz-Davidson center-back tandem and relegate Naughton to the bench for the second part of the season?
My guess is that Dames himself has not fully worked this out yet, but balancing talent is always a preferable problem to searching for it. The Red Stars are sitting on four first-round picks in 2020, but the reality is that they have the talent to win in 2019.
The Sofia Huerta saga continues on, meaning that she is still on the Dash and still not being tagged to play outside back. New head coach James Clarkson has made some efforts to move Huerta, but if he cannot find a suitable match — Clarkson is said to be looking for players, and most offers have centered on draft picks — the Dash will go to battle in April with Huerta in an attacking position.
The best of the 2018 Dash was pretty good and if they can get Kristie Mewis back to full health, she will improve the spine of the club in her newfound role as a defensive midfielder. Central defense could be an issue as well since Clare Polkinghorne will miss time with Australia and was better in midfield a season ago.
There are lots of what-ifs for the 2019 Dash, starting with Clarkson, who has never coached women before. Depth will also be an issue and the loss of Thembi Kgatlana and Linda Motlhalo should not be overlooked. But Clarkson seems to have injected a needed dose of positive energy, so if he can manage the team well, they should be in the mix for a playoff spot.
North Carolina Courage
What can we say about the Courage? In their two seasons in North Carolina they are 33-8-7 with two Shields and one NWSL Championship from two trips to the final match. Add in their final season in Western New York and it’s three straight trips to the final and two titles.
Do they need anything? Depth for the World Cup stands out, especially now that NWSL Defender of the Year, Abby Erceg, is back on board with New Zealand. If Jessica McDonald and McCall Zerboni make it to France, the Courage could be without eight players for a lengthy stretch of the season. Lynn Williams looks to be off the U.S.’ radar and Jaelene Hinkle is out of the mix, so those are two players who figure to be sticking around.
The one-loss tour-de-force in 2018 featured a team that managed to dig deep for motivation and a desire to be excellent every single match. The demand of finding that motivation day in and day out could be the obstacle stopping this squad — when fully formed — from ending this year right where they ended last.
Before figuring out what the Pride need to be successful in 2019, it is important to figure out what they were in 2019. Were they the team that played disciplined soccer and ran near the top of the league into July? Or were they the team that slumped and sulked to an atrocious finish that ended with a loss to theretofore winless Sky Blue FC in the season finale?
On talent alone, the Pride should be somewhere in the middle, although the loss of Monica and Poliana could leave them thin on the back line. Up top, Sydney Leroux is pregnant, a development that should open the door further for Rachel Hill to be on the pitch for key minutes. In fact, when Alex Morgan and Marta are gone, Hill will be called upon to produce if the Pride are to keep their heads above water.
My gut says the Pride have a surprise move they are waiting to unveil, or are closing in on. Whether that happens or not, this is a talented team with question marks on all three lines.
Portland Thorns FC
The Thorns have one mission in 2019.: Figure out a way to beat the North Carolina Courage. The last time they did was the bloodbath NWSL Championship in 2017. The 2018 matches were mostly one-sided, culminating with the rematch that ended with the Courage celebrating the title at Providence Park. I’m not sure the Thorns match up so well with the Courage, but I would bet Portland head coach Mark Parsons has spent many late nights this offseason trying to figure it out.
One of the most remarkable things that happened in NWSL last season was 35-year old Christine Sinclair playing every minute. In fact, she has started every Thorns match since the end of Canada’s Olympic run in 2016. That streak will end this year with the World Cup, and NWSL MVP Lindsey Horan is out of the SheBelieves Cup with a quad injury. The Thorns did not get enough goals from forwards last season to be able to withstand the absences of Sinclair and Horan, so they will be looking for someone to pick up the slack.
The Thorns should be just fine in 2019, but they still need to beat the Courage.
Considering the Reign were rarely healthy, had no scoring depth, and that head coach Vlatko Andonovski had to figure out how to rework the squad in his image, they were excellent last season. And they have already made some sneaky good moves to prepare for 2019. Expect Shea Groom to enjoy a bounce-back season reuniting with Andonovski, and Darian Jenkins figures to get more time to play and see if she can score consistently at the league level.
Depth remains an issue, this time in the back. Steph Catley will miss significant time due to the World Cup and if Yael Averbuch decides not to play, it will leave the Reign thin at center back. They are also still absent Andonovski’s Lauren Holiday-type playmaker in the middle. Something tells me the Reign will be very good again but may be missing the final few pieces to get them over the edge.
Sky Blue FC
Hear me out. The addition of Nahomi Kawasumi could mean a deadly pairing of wide attackers with her and 2018 Rookie of the Year, Imani Dorsey. If Sarah Killion and Raquel Rodriguez are healthy and can bounce back, that could be a decent midfield with Carli Lloyd and Savannah McCaskill — who just scored the W-League championship winning goal — up top. Or maybe it’s a 4-2-3-1 with Killion and Rodriguez holding and Lloyd between Kawasumi and Dorsey feeding McCaskill.
In back, the addition of Caprice Dydasco and Estelle Johnson to go with Mandy Freeman and Erica Skroski has the makings of a reasonable defense. The problem there is that all but Dydasco are center backs. Either Skroski or Johnson would likely be the other outside back, but all you need to see is tape of Sky Blue’s season-ending win over the Pride to realize Skroski needs to be central.
This is hardly a playoff team, and one or two injuries could sabotage the entire thing, but that’s not a bad starting lineup.
Utah Royals FC
The Royals’ season is going to come down to three important things.
The first is whether Christen Press and Amy Rodriguez find the chemistry to make the team a scoring threat on a regular basis. I appreciate Laura Harvey’s summer explanation that the team had barely had training time after the trade, but Press and Rodriguez were teammates on the 2015 World Cup-winning team, so they have trained together plenty.
Second, will Veronica Boquete be anything close to the player she was in her two previous stops in the United States? Harvey appears to have a vision for her and Vero seems to have embraced it. If Boquete can boss the midfield at The RIOT, it could go a long way toward helping item No. 1.
And third, can they survive defensively while Becky Sauerbrunn and Rachel Corsie are out of the lineup for the World Cup? There will be lots of pressure on the likes of Sydney Miramontez and Becca Moros.
Like the Pride, the Spirit were so much less than the sum of their parts in 2018. This looks to be a transition year — at best — since Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle and possibly Andi Sullivan will be part of the World Cup team. They also traded half their back line and lost Taylor Smith — probably for the season — with an ACL tear suffered in Australia.
The Spirit did wind up with four first-round picks, but have not added any veteran presence aside from Chloe Logarzo, who is 24 and tied up with Australia. Last year was supposed to be the one that faltered due to the team’s youth. Instead, Pugh got hurt around Memorial Day and the team gradually fell apart, eventually being unable to score or defend the midfield. They eventually waived the white flag, which got Jim Gabarra fired before the end of the season.
If there is a move to be made for a central defender, the Spirit should be looking into it.