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The Lowdown: Catching up with the NWSL

So, you want to follow the National Women’s Soccer League now? Or maybe, you’re just trying to get back on the horse after the World Cup. Whether you’re new to the league or a grizzled vet, here is everything you need to know about the league’s nine teams stand as the 23 members of the United States‘ World Cup-winning team prepare to return this weekend. We’ll take it, as we usually do, in the order they stand in the table.

North Carolina Courage

The Skinny: The Courage are bidding for their third consecutive Shield as the NWSL’s regular-season champions and they returned to the penthouse with a decisive, 2-0 win over Reign FC last weekend. There were some rough times earlier in the spring — the first serious rough patch since the team moved from Western New York in 2017 — but things are slowly beginning to return to normal. They’ll get even closer to normal when U.S. players Crystal Dunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis and Jess McDonald return to the field.

For the newbies: World Cup viewers will know Dunn as the U.S.’ starting left back. But in the NWSL, Dunn is a former golden boot winner (leading goal-scorer) and league MVP who for the Courage most often lines up as an attacking midfielder. In a small sample size before departing for national team camp, most felt Dunn was off to the best start of any player in the NWSL. If she gets space in front of her in the attacking third, there is a better chance than not that something good will happen for the Courage.

Burning question: Will Kristen Hamilton return to the bench or will Paul Riley ride the hot hand and keep her in the lineup? Hamilton authored two hat tricks, including a four-goal game during the World Cup, both matching records (most hat tricks in a season, most goals in a game) initially set by Sam Kerr. Riley is not averse to sitting high-profile players if form or tactics dictate. You need not look back father than last season when Mewis was forced her earn her way back into the XI after missing the start of the season recovering from a knee injury.

Next home match: August 2 vs. Washington Spirit – buy tickets here

Kristen Hamilton’s time is now

Portland Thorns FC

The Skinny: The Thorns survived their six-game road swing to open the season while the renovation at Providence Park was getting finished up. And they survived the loss of much of their best talent to the World Cup. Last weekend, in front of an ESPNEWS audience, they survived giving up a 90th-minute equalizer by grabbing a late goal off the head of Tyler Lussi, and they find themselves level on points with the Courage. And with so many of their away matches out of the way, the Thorns’ two trips to Utah — the first one being this Friday — are the only times they’ll have to leave the Pacific Northwest for the rest of the regular season.

For the newbies: Christine Sinclair sits on the precipice of breaking Abby Wambach’s all-time record for international goals, but to watch her ply her trade for the Thorns is truly a treat. A club original who netted the squad’s first goal in April 2013, Sinclair has played a variety of roles in the Rose City. When the team was struggling in 2017, she agreed to move to a more defensive role which helped right the ship on the way to the NWSL Championship. Wherever she is, though, watch her play. Her decisions and execution are, more often than not, flawless.

Burning question: Will the once vaunted defense return to form with Emily Sonnett back in the center of the defense? Sonnett had a tough start to the season before leaving for the World Cup, where she was not often used. Her defensive partner, Emily Menges, has dipped some from her 2016-2017 form that had many calling her the best central defender in the league and a must-call-up player for the U.S. national team. Had Lussi not rescued the Thorns last weekend, it would have marked the second game this season giving up a lead in the 90th minute or stoppage time, something that had not happened since before Mark Parsons arrived in 2016.

Next home match: July 24 vs. Houston Dash – buy tickets here

Reign FC

The Skinny: After a slow start, the Reign turned it around, highlighted by a big home win over the Courage on Memorial Day and capped by a 1-0 win in Portland the Friday before the World Cup final. A loss in North Carolina last weekend stunted some momentum, but this week brought a flurry of roster moves as head coach Vlatko Andonovski tries to figure out how to navigate the rest of the season without Jess Fishlock, who tore her ACL two weeks ago and is out for the season.

For the newbies: Megan Rapinoe is perhaps the most talked-about athlete on this planet over the last two weeks. If you’re looking to find her on a week-to-week basis, this is the team. Rapinoe has been with the Reign since they launched and helped them win back-to-back Shields in 2014 and 2015. In 2017, she was squarely in the golden boot and MVP conversations until a knee injury slowed her down late in the season and the side missed the playoffs. Look for her playing a similar role for the Reign as she does for the U.S., terrorizing the left flank and sending in deadly crosses and set pieces.

Burning question: Is Steph Catley healthy and ready to resume her position as the best left back in the NWSL? Two years ago, the Marta and Morgan show lifted the Orlando Pride to their only playoff appearance, but an unsung contributor was Catley, who patrolled the left side and offered quality service in support of the attack. Having requested a trade to the West Coast, she has been in Washington the last two years but was not the same player in 2018. A return to 2017 Catley could go a long way toward keeping the Reign in the playoff mix.

Next home match: July 28 vs. Chicago Red Stars – buy tickets here

Washington Spirit

The Skinny: The Spirit laid to rest what was a disaster of a 2018 season and rode a talented slew of rookies and some new energy to a quick start. They have now gone four straight games without a win, but had enough equity in the bank that they still sit fourth as the nitty-gritty part of the season approaches.

For the newbies: If you’re looking for a wonderful place to take in an NWSL match, the Maryland SoccerPlex could be the place for you. It’s nothing spectacular, but the tranquil setting and incredible sight lines make the Plex a top venue for fans to watch professional soccer players. You can even park yourself on the hill behind one of the goals. Just watch out for speeding tickets on the surrounding roads – yes, they even come in the mail!

Burning question: Rose Lavelle was a revelation to many in the World Cup, particularly after she scored the backbreaking goal in the final and went home with the Bronze Ball. But for her and Mallory Pugh, fitting into and helping improve the team in Washington will be a challenge. Lavelle played only 424 minutes last season, her first in Washington, and 45 in 2019 before hightailing it to the World Cup. Though she has shown signs of being a very good NWSL player, those moments have been fleeting — mostly due to injury. It is also not always the easiest transition for young midfielders to go from being a great player in a great midfield to being the engine among a group of inferior players. Pugh has not been quite the same since getting hurt in May 2018. If either — or especially both — can become important contributors there is little doubt the Spirit have the nucleus of a team that can soon contend.

Next home match: July 20 vs. Houston Dash – buy tickets here

2015 v 2019: Same stars, different teams

Utah Royals FC

The Skinny: The Royals have conceded only eight goals in 11 matches, yet they are just a game over .500 and struggling to stay afloat. The issue has been scoring, something that could be rectified with the return of Christen Press from the World Cup and Veronica Boquete from injury. It’s not ideal to have lost four times and drawn two from only eight goals given up, so the offense is going to have to kick in at some point.

For the newbies: The Royals feature two very good former national team players, Amy Rodriguez and Nicole Barnhart. Both have had better club careers than international careers. Rodriguez scored all three FC Kansas City goals in their two NWSL Championship wins in 2014 and 2015 and has since returned to being productive after giving birth to a second child and undergoing ACL surgery. Barnhart, the goalkeeper on those FC Kansas City teams, has probably been the NWSL’s best keeper in 2019. She was a long-time national teamer but always behind Hope Solo in the depth chart. Budding historians will want to watch these two.

Burning question: Questions about whether Press and Rodriguez could coexist together on a weekly basis reared their heads from the moment the Royals acquired Press in the middle of 2018. Despite being teammates on the 2015 World Cup winning side, there was just never any real chemistry between the pair on the field. Even tactically, Rodriguez is best as a target striker while Press does better playing from the outside with strike partners. If they can find some magic, the Royals could shoot to the top of the league. And maybe, just maybe, a healthy Boquete will be able to help them find it.

Next home match: July 19 vs. Portland Thorns FC – buy tickets here

Chicago Red Stars

The Skinny: The Red Stars were supposed to be the team with the strongest roster during the World Cup. Instead, they were shut out in three straight losses before Sam Kerr came back and steadied the ship. But there are myriad issues, starting with an inability to find secondary scoring after Kerr, to Danielle Colaprico being clearly less than her best, to issues in the back as Katie Naughton suffers through her worst NWSL season. But they are a team to watch for sure.

For the newbies: Julie Ertz is one of the most popular players on the national team and I am not alone among media members in thinking she should have won the Golden Ball at the World Cup. Whether she plays in the midfield or goes back to try and resuscitate the defense, she will be playing a more subtle role, spending more time snuffing out attacks and winning balls. She’ll be easy to spot as the one wearing the thick, blue headband. You’ll want to check out Kerr also. She can literally score at any time.

Burning question: The Red Stars have been to the playoffs four years in a row but lost in the semifinals all four times. At some point, they will either take the next step and play for the championship or backslide and miss the playoffs. Seeing them struggle since the World Cup makes it fair to ask if things have become stale for the most consistent roster in the NWSL, especially since they were supposed to be out front by now and not trying to make up ground. But they might be the team most worth watching the rest of the way.

Next home match: July 21 vs. North Carolina Courage – buy tickets here

Tierna Davidson skipped her senior year at Stanford, but was it worth it?

Houston Dash

The Skinny: Like the Red Stars, the Dash were supposed to thrive during the World Cup, but here they are at the midway point in the season doing what they have always done — looking up at the playoff teams. New coach James Clarkson has clearly turned the culture around, but now he has to figure out how to get his team to start winning games – especially at home, where the Dash are 1-4-2.

For the newbies: The Dash had no U.S. players at the World Cup, but keep your eyes on Rachel Daly and Kealia Ohai. Daly played for England, where she is a Jill-of-all-trades type, but in Houston she’s a forward, and a darn good one. Working up top with her is Ohai, a speedy player who was the Dash’s first-ever draft pick in 2014 and had a cup of coffee with the national team in 2016. If the Dash are going to make a run, Daly and Ohai will need to light up the scoreboard.

Burning question: Will the defense be good enough to keep the Dash moving in the right direction? That is a multi-pronged question as it pertains not only to keeping the ball out of the back of the net, but moving it out of the defensive third in a manner that will lead to some cohesive attack. The Christine Nairn-Sophie Schmidt pairing in defensive midfield has great potential, but the Dash must prove that their defense can be playoff good and that, in moments when it isn’t, that Jane Campbell is the answer in goal.

Next home match: July 28 vs. Sky Blue FC – buy tickets here

Orlando Pride

The Skinny: The awful start is behind them, but issues remain. The goals the Pride gave up in Portland over the weekend were the result of youth-level defending, including the last one, off a corner kick, that erased a 90th-minute equalizer. Marta has returned full of energy and has found her goal-scoring boots, but the Marc Skinner era has a long way to go.

For the newbies: Alex Morgan plays here. The most popular member of the U.S. World Cup team has been with the Pride since they joined the league for the 2016 season, and their lone playoff appearance was on the wings of her and Marta’s summer of magic in 2017. Marta isn’t too shabby to watch, either. No women’s player has ever been quite like Marta and there won’t likely be many more like her in the future. Enjoy her while she’s here.

Burning question: Regardless of how well the Pride play going forward, the questions in Orlando are about the future. All three of their U.S. World Cup players — Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris, as well as Morgan — are now in their 30s and Marta is 33. In four years, the team has made exactly one first-round draft pick, and they have paid for it from a depth perspective. As it stands today, the team owns its first three picks in 2020 plus the Dash’s third- and fourth-rounders. That could signal a much-needed change in philosophy.

Ali Krieger: ‘This one means more to me’

Next home match: July 20 vs. Sky Blue FC – buy tickets here

Sky Blue FC

The Skinny: Sky Blue made news during the World Cup when they fired Denise Reddy after an 0-7-2 start. Worse than that, Reddy was 1-24-8 in her tenure coaching the club. The team has promptly won both games since, but have declined to name an official interim coach from a staff that has no one qualified with the proper coaching license. The team also refused all interview requests and did not make any member of its coaching staff available following their win in Chicago (quasi-interim coach Hugo Macedo available after their home win over the Royals). Long the biggest mess in the NWSL, it’s been business as unusual at Sky Blue in 2019.

For the newbies: Carli Lloyd is not only a Sky Blue forward, she requested a trade to her home state ahead of the 2018 season. It cost the club Sam Kerr — who had requested a trade out of New Jersey — but for a team that has had many players ask out, it’s good to have a high-profile player who wants to be there. Beyond Lloyd, keep your eye on the speedy winger, Imani Dorsey. The 2018 NWSL Rookie of the Year is likely to be among the next wave of young players invited to U.S. camp.

Burning question: Can this team survive? It pains me to ask it, but even the first league match following the World Cup final couldn’t draw 2,000 people to Yurcak Field. The team has not been in the playoffs since 2013 and, since Jim Gabarra left two years later, they have cycled through a series of coaches whose tenures have ranged from unsuccessful to brutal. Ownership is rarely seen and less often heard from. Yurcak Field is a flat out bad venue for professional athletes. The players can’t even shower in the cramped locker rooms that they have. As a result of both things, few players want to be there and many have flat out rejected the opportunity. That deal to sell to Red Bull in 2014, which fell through, must seem appealing right about now.

Next home match: July 24 vs. Washington Spirit – buy tickets here

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