Three weeks into the National Women’s Soccer League season and things are about to take a dramatic turn. United States national team coach Jill Ellis has yet to name her World Cup roster, but that announcement is expected this week and the players on that roster will not be seen again in the league until after the U.S. finishes at the World Cup. Players from the other World Cup qualifiers are still with their clubs and will trickle out at different times in the coming weeks.
A few spots on Ellis’ roster remain in question, but for the most part, we know which players will be gone and which teams feel the sting most. Let’s take a closer look at who is losing whom, and what advantages, if any, will be available during the next 10 weeks or so.
North Carolina Courage
2-0-1, 7 points
It is no surprise to see the Courage on top of the table, though they have dropped points and the Utah Royals have not. But any notion that there would be a hangover following last season’s tour-de-force has been debunked. Crystal Dunn, in particular, has been on fire over the first three matches. Dunn is one of several players on her way out, and by the time they all go, it will be a much different looking Courage side. No team will lose as many players of such importance as the league champions, but they will get to keep Lynn Williams — and McCall Zerboni remains a possibility.
The Courage faced this scenario on two occasions last season. They rallied to pull out a 1-1 draw against the Houston Dash in league play and later beat Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon in the International Champions Cup. That won’t be as easy to maintain week over week, but it should offer some confidence.
Meanwhile, first-round pick Leah Pruitt has emerged as an early Rookie of the Year favorite and will begin accruing more minutes. The Courage hope goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland will be back in time for Steph Labbe’s departure and Julie King could be back soon to offer some reinforcement on the back line.
For short-term motivation, the Courage are now two matches away from the 2014 Seattle Reign’s league-record of 16 consecutive regular-season matches without a defeat.
Utah Royals FC
2-0-0, 6 points
The Royals are off to a solid start with 1-0 wins over the Washington Spirit and Orlando Pride, making them the only club to get through two matches without dropping a point. The competition has not been stellar, but you can only do as good as beating the teams lined up against you.
The best Royals player by a long way has been Christen Press, who will depart for the World Cup in career-best form. Could that open the door for Amy Rodriguez or Katie Stengel to catch fire? About the only flaw in Press’ game this season is her continued inability to find joy with Rodriguez in the attack. Perhaps her absence will get Rodriguez going. And don’t forget that Stengel outscored them both in 2018.
In back, the big loss will be Becky Sauerbrunn, and, eventually, her center-back partner Rachel Corsie. Kelley O’Hara is also leaving, but she has yet to start as she recovers from injury — and third-round pick Michelle Maemone has been a fine during her two starts at left back.
The immediate issue in Utah is the glut of injured players. Jack-of-all-trades defender Sydney Miramontez could be back by the time Corsie goes away with Scotland. Utah will already be without captain and all-world defender Sauerbrunn beginning this week. Getting Becca Moros back healthy will also help keep the back line together without Sauerbrunn.
Portland Thorns FC
1-0-2, 5 points
The Thorns just got a glimpse of life without Lindsey Horan, who missed Sunday’s match at Sky Blue FC with a hip injury. She was clearly missed in the midfield, which will also be absent Christine Sinclair following this weekend’s bye. Not to be forgotten is Tobin Heath, the best player on the park at Yurcak Field on Sunday evening. Not only are those three difficult to replace, as are all World Cup players, but Horan, Sinclair, and especially Heath possess particularly unique skill sets.
The bigger issue in Portland is defensively. Emily Sonnett, who has had a tough start to the season, will be leaving, but Emily Menges should be back soon. In goal, Adrianna Franch should be on the World Cup team and the Thorns struggled without her last season. We’ll see if Britt Eckerstrom’s strong season in Australia pays off when she gets thrust into the pressure cooker in Portland.
Something else to keep in mind for the Thorns: They’re now halfway through their six-match opening road trip and are undefeated with 5 points. They will have 12 of their final 18 matches at home and will not cross the Rocky Mountains after a June 29 visit to Houston.
Chicago Red Stars
1-0-2, 5 points
The schedule makers thrust the Red Stars right into the deep end this season with their three fellow playoff teams one after the other to open the season. They got through it without losing, including a gutsy, 1-1 draw in North Carolina and a wild, 4-4 draw against the Thorns in which they salvaged a point after going down in the 87th minute.
The Red Stars will be losing many players to the World Cup, but the early contributions in the Windy City suggest Rory Dames’ side may be okay through the summer. First, however, let’s look at the departures.
Julie Ertz is an important force for whichever team she is on and will be missed. Tierna Davidson has authored a solid if not spectacular start to her pro career and is also heading in with the U.S. national team. Alyssa Naeher will also be leaving. And Casey Short? We’ll find out soon.
Dames said he began preparing for the World Cup absences last season and it has shown. Michele Vasconcelos and Brooke Elby combined on the final goal against Reign FC on Sunday and will be counted on heavily in the coming weeks. Sarah Gorden has also proven capable of filling in either inside or outside on the back line. Danielle Colaprico tends to flourish when she is left to shepherd the midfield without Ertz. And then there is Morgan Brian. She is exiting her best match as a Red Star but has not been in a U.S. camp since January. She is, however, a federation player this season, so anything is possible with regards to a last-minute call-up for the World Cup.
Sam Kerr looks as good as ever and will eventually be leaving as well, but things are looking good at the moment in Chicago.
1-1-1, 4 points
New head coach James Clarkson said it was important for his side to get a stern test to see where they stood. They got it, and the answer was not great. The Courage pounded them on Sunday to hand Clarkson his first loss as Dash coach. But the Dash are doing some good things, and they do not have any U.S. internationals and so will not be losing anyone at least for this weekend (this could change if Ashlyn Harris’ injury is serious enough that Jane Campbell gets a call-in). They have other World Cup players, but also a strong roster that will be left behind.
Trigger the first time in Dash history that they are under some real pressure. They’re a big favorite to defeat Orlando at home this weekend and to pick up a bunch of points over the next two months.
Of concern, as pointed out on the podcast by Chelsey Bush, is that Sofia Huerta has not found her stride yet. But the season is only three games old.
1-1-0, 3 points
The Spirit are the most difficult team to analyze so far this season. They got a much-needed win on opening day against a poor Sky Blue side, and then played reasonably well without ever really threatening to score in a 1-0 loss in Utah. Rose Lavelle is — as usual — trying to get healthy, but her presence in midfield is a clear game-changer and will be sorely missed. Mallory Pugh’s clear ability to take over games up top has not been seen as much as some would like, but she too will be missed.
The thing in Washington is that Richie Burke went with youth, and the entire season will be a chance to see it all develop. Jordan DiBiasi and Sam Staab look solid so far and there looks to at least be renewed energy at the SoccerPlex. The goal should be for Lavelle and Pugh to return to a side that is much better than it is today.
The wild card here is Andi Sullivan. If she gets a last-ditch roster spot, that should be a good thing for her development even if she rarely sees the field in France. If she doesn’t, it will be a chance for her to lead a young Spirit squad and help build it an identity.
0-1-2, 2 points
For the first time since 2013, the Reign are three games deep in a season and don’t have a win. On one hand, they are the only team to give the Pride a point and looked downright poor in Chicago. On the other, they should have won in Houston when they earned a stoppage-time penalty in a 1-1 match (Jane Campbell saved Jodie Taylor’s attempt). Playing on the road at noon after having the original match postponed a day — as they did this past weekend — is never an easy ask.
And then there is the fact that Megan Rapinoe, Jess Fishlock, and Steph Catley — arguably the Reign’s three best players — have yet to play a minute, and Jasmyne Spencer tore her ACL during the first half of the first match of the season.
So Rapinoe is leaving but she hasn’t been there yet, and Allie Long is likely on her way in with the U.S. as well. On the brighter side, Fishlock should be back by early June.
For the moment, the Reign need to start playing better before worrying about who will and will not be there.
Sky Blue FC
0-2-1, 1 point
Carli Lloyd just had her best game since joining Sky Blue and now she is going in with the United States. At the same time, Savannah McCaskill is getting healthy and while no one will confuse the two, McCaskill could slot right in where Lloyd was playing. The only other player Sky Blue is certain to lose is goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, who is off to a strong start to the season. DiDi Haracic will get the reins in goal in another week.
Opening day was an unmitigated disaster for Sky Blue, but they were much better against the Dash, losing 1-0 on a goal that took a strange deflection off a defender. They took it to the Thorns for the first 25 minutes on Sunday, opening up a 2-0 lead before the Thorns struck quickly to equalize. Even after that, the second half was respectable as the New Jersey side strives to respectability.
Every indication is that Sky Blue are better than they were in 2018. Even with limited World Cup absences, though, depth is an issue. And with a single win from 27 matches under Denise Reddy –including an 0-17-6 start to last season — tension could mount quickly if they go much longer without a win.
0-3-1, 1 point
The Pride are a hot mess, but they may also be a team worth following in the coming weeks. The opening four matches of the season have been troubling, and if you saw head coach Marc Skinner giving the business to his players in the huddle after losing to the Royals, it said a lot about the season so far.
The Pride are losing Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris, and possibly Ali Krieger to the World Cup, and will later be missing Marta, Alanna Kennedy, Emily van Egmond, and Shelina Zadorsky. No team with that talent should ever be 0-3-1 but for whatever reason, Morgan and Marta can’t score and the team as a whole plays like it is not on the same page.
Beyond that, the Pride are the team least equipped to handle World Cup absences from a roster standpoint and will have to dip into the National Team Replacement pool to fill out game-day rosters. The question is whether Skinner can instill a strong culture for the stars to return to.
NWSL attendance watch
|Utah Royals FC
|Chicago Red Stars
|North Carolina Courage
|Sky Blue FC
— Emily Menges was upgraded to questionable for the Thorns but was not in the 18 at Sky Blue. Menges has now missed a dozen matches over the last two seasons. The Thorns are 3-3-6 in those matches with 20 goals allowed and one clean sheet. In the games she played last season, the Thorns were 10-3-2 with 14 goals allowed and five shutouts. Numbers are regular season only.
— I’m not convinced Tobin Heath’s goal against the Pride was on purpose, but there was nothing accidental about her back-heel against Sky Blue on Sunday. Heath was the best player on the park that night, and anyone with the absurd notion that the national team players were coasting in their last NWSL appearances before the World Cup should check out Heath’s work across 90 minutes.
— The Equalizer (@EqualizerSoccer) April 28, 2019
— Yuki Nagasato’s assist to Casey Short broke a streak of eight straight Chicago assists that went to Sam Kerr.
— The best pass of that match actually came from Morgan Brian to Kerr. Lydia Williams read it well and came off her line to beat Kerr to the ball, but she could not recover in time to stop Nagasato’s chip.
— Kerr did not score in the match, ending her string of regular-season games with a goal at six. That puts her in a tie for the league record with Abby Wambach and Kim Little.
— Jane Campbell has faced a penalty in all three Dash games and none have gone in. She stopped Jodie Taylor on opening day and Lynn Williams last weekend. In the middle match, Carli Lloyd hit the post. PK takers are now a gaudy 3-for-10 against Campbell and this marks her third streak of having three in a row unconverted (the other streak also included two saves and a post.)
— Nicole Barnhart is now the only goalkeeper to log 10,000 career NWSL minutes. She passed the milestone during Saturday’s 1-0 shutout over the Pride. She is in fine form as well and has still not lost as a starter for the Royals (7-0-2). Overall, the 37-year-old Barnhart has not lost in her last 13 decisions dating to 2017 with FC Kansas City.
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