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The Lowdown: The best NWSL players of 2019 — so far

Photo Copyright Lewis Gettier for The Equalizer

For those of us — and I use us because I was part of it — who thought this National Women’s Soccer League season would be a boring repeat of 2018, the opening six weeks have been anything but. The North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns, who have held a duopoly on the trophies for the last three seasons, have looked good at times but both enter Memorial Day weekend outside the playoff bubble.

Meanwhile, the Washington Spirit already have more wins than last season, and their three-goal game against Sky Blue was their first since August 4, 2017, and their encore against the Thorns made it consecutive three-goal games for the first time since April 2015.

But who have been the best players so far, as the season nears the quarter mark? And which players need to pick up the slack heading into the summer months, without so many of the NWSL’s best players? Let’s dive in.

Best NWSL Players

Crystal Dunn’s influence on the Courage is clear. There’s a noticeable difference between watching her play as it is and watching the team play without her. Her three matches in the league left the impression that, with space to maneuver, Crystal Dunn is the most dangerous player this side of Sam Kerr. Without her so far, the Courage have struggled for ideas in the attacking third.

Sam Kerr has six goals in six games and, if not for the World Cup, might have us on 20-goal watch. Her goal-scoring exploits are nothing new, but if it’s possible, Kerr seems like she has improved yet again in her second season with the Chicago Red Stars. Early last season it looked like she was struggling to adjust to being on a better team than she had at Sky Blue FC. No such adjustment this season.

Tobin Heath has been a marvel for the Thorns and since 2016 has been the best player in the NWSL when healthy.

Pleasant surprises

Michele Vasconcelos understandably struggled to get up to speed in 2018, when she was two years removed from playing for Brigham Young University and had a baby in between. This season, she is starting to look more like the No. 11 pick the Red Stars traded up for.

EXTRA: Michele Vasconcelos is hitting her stride at just the right time for the Red Stars

Raquel Rodriguez has been flying under the radar as Sky Blue struggles out of the gate for the second straight season, but she has been quietly solid in midfield after struggling for much of 2018.

Sam Johnson missed the opener on suspension stemming from the Westfield W-League and looked to have taken an injury before being subbed off after halftime last weekend. Before she was, Johnson was a rock in the middle for the Utah Royals in what turned out to be a 1-1 draw. She’ll be important with Rachel Corsie soon to join Becky Sauerbrunn on the international absences list.

Cheyna Matthews had herself a sweet Mother’s Day weekend with her first two goals since joining the mom’s club, and has looked sharp and active most weeks. She has been an integral part of the Spirit’s strong start.

Best acquisitions

Vero Boquete has been as advertised in the Royals midfield, using her creativity and vision to guide the attack at Rio Tinto Stadium. If you’re not sold, check out her role in the Royals’ goal in North Carolina on Sunday. Good as she has been, though, the Royals have been stuck in 1st gear with exactly one goal in all five games. Considering they never went more than three without being shut out in 2018, that’s some good consistency, but they’re eventually going to need to break out.

Amy Harrison has been a revelation in Washington, where she has helped make the left side into a dangerous place with her ball skills and passing ability out of the back. With those skills, it may not be surprising that she is a midfielder by trade. Harrison is off to wear her Matildas colors through the World Cup, but the Spirit know they have a versatile player in their midst who will be able to slot in at multiple spots once she returns.

Christine Nairn and Sophie Schmidt have brought much-needed bite to the Houston Dash midfield, Nairn through a trade with the Pride and Schmidt through the discovery/allocation processes. Both can win possession, both can create from deep-lying positions, and both can score when needed. The jury is out on the 2019 Dash, but they should be solid in defensive midfield, an area they have rarely solved through the years.

The top rookies

Jordan DiBiasi not only looks capable and comfortable, but she has handled what seems like more responsibility each week. In the last two weeks of Washington scoring three goals, DiBiasi has one in each game including one directly off a corner kick that stole back momentum against the Thorns. Things are certain to become more difficult as teams realize they’ll need to lock her down to be successful, but it has been a jolly good start to a pro career for DiBiasi.

Leah Pruitt has looked excellent at times and average at others, which is about right for a rookie. It has been surprising that she has not seen more minutes since the U.S. World Cup players left, but she has shown enough so far that it is clear she belongs.

Michelle Maemone was not drafted until No. 23 this year, but an injury to Kelley O’Hara found her right in the fire for Laura Harvey’s Royals. Maemone did not play against the Courage, due to the return of Becca Moros, but Katie Bowen is on her way to France for New Zealand, so there will be more opportunities for Maemone to earn her chops.

Patiently waiting

Katelyn Rowland returned just as Steph Labbe (who was excellent) went off to join Canada, and Rowland has surrendered two bad goals. In her debut, she let Sam Kerr’s goal slip through her hands, and last week appeared to misjudge Amy Rodriguez’s shot for going wide only to watch it curl inside the post. The good news is that she is still making good reads off her line.

Sofia Huerta was picked by multiple folks at The Equalizer to be in the running for MVP this year, but despite scoring against her former team last weekend, she has been quieter than most thought she would be. You can argue she is playing out of position and should be wider, but let’s see if Huerta gets going with Rachel Daly out of the way for the foreseeable future.

NWSL attendance watch

2019 NWSL Attendance Chart
Games AVG 2018 All-time +/-
2018
+/-
all-time
Utah Royals FC 3 14,903 9,466 10,553 +57.4% +41.2%
Chicago Red Stars 3 5,961 4,004 3,295 +48.9% +80.9%
Orlando Pride 3 5,399 4,837 6,387 +11.6% -15.5%
North Carolina Courage 4 4,551 5,129 4,730 -11.3% -3.8%
Reign FC 2 4,180 3,824 3,748 +9.3% +11.5%
Houston Dash 4 3,783 4,335 4,830 +5.9% -21.7%
Washington Spirit 3 2,506 3,892 3,696 -35.6% -32.2%
Sky Blue FC 3 1,348 2,531 2,107 -46.7% -36.0%
TOTALS 21 5,282 6,024 ** ** **

Free Kicks

— Sam Kerr now has 64 career NWSL goals in 104 games for an unsightly goals-per-game average of .625. Among players with at least 50 career appearances, Kerr is one of only three players to top the .500 mark and she is more than a full .100 ahead of Kim Little in second place. The only other player north of .500 is Christen Press.

— Tori Huster cracked 10,000 career minutes over the weekend, all for the Washington Spirit. The only other players to amass 10,000 minutes with the same NWSL club are Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock, both for Reign FC. Christine Sinclair is due to be next once she returns from the World Cup.

— The NWSL’s old communications director departed the league on January 11, a day after the draft. He has not been replaced. I’m curious how the powers that be are planning to take advantage of any World Cup bump that is about to come their way.

— The Houston Dash just don’t play as well at BBVA Compass Stadium as they should. Sunday’s loss to the Red Stars dropped them to 1-2-1 at home this season and 19-27-12 all-time at home. (They also lost both ‘home’ matches at other venues after being displaced by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.) Meanwhile, the Dash have won both away matches this season for new coach James Clarkson and are 17-31-10 all-time on the road.

— There was some Twitter chatter about the location of the NWSL Championship over the weekend. My own reporting has yielded mostly answers that sound something like, “haven’t heard but won’t be here…” At this point, it is fair to wonder if the league actually wants its final to be a big deal. Much of the reason for sticking the match in a predetermined site is to make it into an event and give fans a chance to plan ahead to be there. The absence of an announcement with just over five months until the game sabotages both of those purposes.

— Reign FC announced that Michelle Betos suffered a torn Achillies tendon late in the team’s win over Sky Blue FC. That injury will require surgery and end Betos’s season. Her injury plus Lydia Williams’ absence to join Australia likely thrusts Casey Murpy into a starting role.

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