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2015 Season Preview: NWSL

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With the World Cup on the horizon and the USA handed plenty of criticism in their build up to the tournament, women’s football fans are even more excited for the NWSL to start with plenty of Americans having points to prove ahead of the summer. Questions over the form of certain players in the national set up has opened the door for many who have been overlooked in their careers so far, and they will be looking to put themselves into Jill Ellis’ thoughts in time for the big competition. On top of this, there have been plenty of signings during the off-season, controversial and high profile events, and promising youngsters joining the league in the college draft to spice things up the little bit more. The 2015 season is bound to be an interesting one with the World Cup changing all sorts of things and everything kicks off this weekend so here is my team-by-team preview for the season ahead.

Boston Breakers

Finished 8th in the NWSL last season.

Boston really struggled last year in the NWSL. Despite USWNT goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher saving 66% of shots at her goal, the Breakers conceded a whopping fifty-three goals in their 2014 campaign and were expected to improve at the back during the off season through new signings. However, this has not been the case as Samantha Lofton and Bianca Calderone are the only newly acquired defenders, coming to the club through the college draft. They really should have recruited a proven and experienced talent instead as they need reliability at the back and this is unlikely to come from players with little experience (though this is not to put their ability in question). Even alongside the young defenders, an experienced head would have been a great move, but it looks like the Breakers will instead have to look to outscore their opponents once more this season.

They’ve endured a setback on the offensive though too with Heather O’Reilly, their highest goal-scorer and their player with the most assists last season, having joined Kansas City, leaving a huge void up front. Again, Boston have tried to rectify this through the college draft, with attacking talents Bianca Brinson, Stephanie Verdoia and Jamia Fields joining the club. Brinson will offer plenty of pace out wide, Verdoia adds versatility and creativity to their attacking line and Fields is an out-and-out striker who has a great eye for goal as well as plenty of strength. Whilst bringing in youngsters at the back is often, understandably, seen as a risk, bringing youth and energy to the attack is sure to bolster the Breakers’ attacking options. These three will terrify defences this season and will be a pleasure to watch throughout the campaign. Boston racked up a decent thirty-seven goals last time out, but will need to add a lot more this year if they want to cancel out their poor back line and push up the standings.

Fortunately, they, unlike many of their NWSL opponents, will lose very few members of their team for the World Cup, and this could really help them one up other teams this season. Many teams are unlikely to see some of their star players until after the summer, giving the Breakers all the time before then to push on and get a good head start. Alyssa Naeher is likely to be called up for the USWNT, however only as a back up keeper, meaning she will be able to return to action immediately after the World Cup, as opposed to needing a bit of a rest. They also face some big teams during this period, playing the likes of Portland Thorns and Kansas City who will lose a lot of key players due to the World Cup. With teams strengthening and the league looking even more competitive this year, I cannot see the Breakers getting a top four spot, but I certainly think they will challenge for one.

Chicago Red Stars

Finished 5th in the NWSL last season.

Chicago were solid last season and only missed out on the play-offs due to Washington Spirit winning their head-to-head with the two having finished on equal points. The Red Stars’ two biggest problems last year was that they drew too many games and did not score enough goals. No one drew more times than Chicago in the 2014 NWSL (8), and only Sky Blue and Houston Dash scored fewer times. More goals will understandably lead to more wins, so Rory Dames has not been shy in recruiting some attacking talent during the off-season. The college draft saw them bring in Sofia Huerta, Cara Walls and Rachel Tejada, all promising young attackers, whilst Danielle Colaprico and Nicole Setterlund will add some bite to the midfield and help the cause going forward.

These young prospects can help make up for many players leaving for the World Cup too, as they are bound to get their opportunities that they will be eager to take. Up to nine or ten players could missing for the Red Stars at some point this season due to the World Cup, and so they need people to step up and ensure these losses are not felt. The new, young players will be excited for these departures, albeit quietly, as it will result in more playing time for them and they just need to make sure they justify their minutes.

Defensively, the Red Stars were superb last season, with only NWSL Shield winners Seattle Reign conceding less goals than their impressive twenty-six. Arin Gilliland has been added to the back line through the college draft, but with the team having retained the services of the core of their squad, they are not lacking in options here and another year of plenty of clean sheets is likely to be key to any success in 2015. Given their performances last season and their activity during the off-season, they have a great chance of finishing in the top four this season, but will have to be at their best given how well teams like Houston Dash and Sky Blue have strengthened. Losing international players could pose a problem, but their squad is good enough to cope with this, in my opinion, and many of their near rivals for the top four will go through the same thing, so I do not see this hindering them too much.

Houston Dash

Finished 9th in the NWSL last season.

Despite finishing dead last in 2014, Houston look to be one of the most exciting outfits for the season ahead. Carli Lloyd, the highest scoring midfielder in the USWNT’s history, has joined from Western New York Flash to bolster an attack that scored just twenty-three goals in twenty-four games in 2014, as well as promising youngster Morgan Brian and Portland Thorns’ top scorer last season, Jessica McDonald. Stephanie Roche, who was nominated for the FIFA Puskas Award earlier this year, also adds to their offensive firepower having left France to join the Dash in one of the most high profile signings of the off season.

This is all well and good to improve Houston going forward, but at the back they are still quite vulnerable having conceded the most goals in the 2014 NWSL, bar Boston Breakers’ total of fifty-three. Little has been done to improve their defensive stability and, whilst they are likely to adopt an ‘out-score the opponent’ approach to counter this and play to their strengths, this is not the safest decision and head coach Randy Waldrum certainly should have targeted the defence as an area for improvement whilst selecting his squad for the season. I cannot wait to see the Dash in action given their incredible front line, but I sense that they will only fair slightly better due to the defensive issues I have pointed out. The team will also need time to gel and so, whilst many will expect them to crack on in their second NWSL season, I think a play-off challenge will have to wait until 2016.

Kansas City

Finished 2nd in the NWSL last season and won the Championship.

Kansas may have fallen thirteen points short of the NWSL Shield last season, but defeating Seattle Reign in the play-off final to claim the Championship off the league leaders made their 2014 a big success. Amy Rodriguez’ return to fitness was huge for them, with her brace winning them the Championship, but with her and Lauren Holiday, amongst others, likely to leave for the World Cup midway through the season, Kansas are unlikely to put forth a real challenge for the Shield this year once more. College draft recruitment Shea Groom will bid to replace the goals these two provide whilst they are away, whilst Kaysie Clark has the potential to fill Holiday’s scoring and assisting shoes. Jessica Ayers and Meghan Streight will strengthen their defensive side too in order to prevent them leaking too many goals, which was a big reason why they could not sustain a title challenge in 2014.

However, the NWSL is going to be extremely competitive this season and it will be those teams who are less reliant on players likely to go to the World Cup that will profit, and going by this theory then Seattle Reign should comfortably secure the title thanks to players like Kim Little and Jess Fishlock sticking around. Kansas will remain a top four team though and will be determined to defend their Championship title, and their quest to do so will make for an interesting watch.

Portland Thorns

Finished 3rd in the NWSL last season.

Another possible contender for the Championship this season are the Portland Thorns. They finished third last year, a good eighteen points behind first placed Seattle, and were beaten in the semi-finals of the play-offs by eventual winners Kansas City. However, during the off-season, they have gained the services of experienced Canadian duo Kaylyn Kyle and Rhian Wilkinson, as well as England international striker Jodie Taylor, who joined from Washington Spirit during January’s draft and scored a sublime hat-trick in the Cyprus Cup for her country last month as she looks to earn herself a seat on that flight to the World Cup this summer. Taylor will be joined up front by Equatorial Guinea’s Genoveva Añonma when she finishes her season with German side Turbine Potsdam too, a striker with a prolific goal-scoring record wherever she goes at the very top levels.

Having kept the core of their squad too, the Thorns can really build on last season, pushing on to challenge for the NWSL Shield. Their new arrivals will improve them slightly in each area of the park and strengthen their squad in general, meaning they can look to match the goal-scoring and clean sheet tallies necessary for a title bid. Portland really do look like one of the best outfits coming into the new season, and with a superb fan following they are one to watch this year.

Seattle Reign

Finished 1st in the NWSL last season and were runners up in the Championship.

Despite all the chopping and changing around the division this season, Seattle Reign have made very few off-season signings but remain one side I cannot wait to see in action again. It has been far too long since we have seen Kim Little and Jess Fishlock combine on a pitch and they will be even more determined to succeed this season having lost the Championship to Kansas City, despite finishing first in the standings with a comfortable thirteen point gap between them and Kansas in second. They will also have an advantage in the summer with neither Scotland nor Wales qualifying for the World Cup, meaning Little and Fishlock will stick around whilst the rest of the league see the majority of their star players depart for a month or so.

The Reign are such a strong team in all departments, scoring fifty goals and conceding just twenty as they won sixteen, drew six and lost two of their games last season – the closest anyone came to matching their plus thirty goal difference was with plus seven. Still, they have tweaked certain areas over the off-season with youngsters Havana Solaun and Kendall Romine coming in via the college draft; the former a promising young attacking minded player and the latter a solid defender. With the rest of the league getting stronger, finishing top and winning the Championship will be an even tougher ask than last season, but the Reign have the quality to do so and their attractive playing style will win many fans on the way. With an added drive to succeed following disappointment last year, I cannot see past anything but Seattle’s name at the top of the standings and on that Championship trophy in 2015.

Sky Blue

Finished 6th in the NWSL last season.

The race for the play-offs was tight last year and Sky Blue were unfortunate to miss out on the top four by just a single point. They totted up average statistics throughout the campaign though, with thirty goals scored and thirty-seven conceded being decent tallies but not Championship challenging ones. 2014 is a strong foundation to build upon, however, especially with them retaining the core of their squad in the player allocation and strengthening on top of this. Through the college draft, they have added plenty of hungry talent to compete for places with the rest of the team to ensure everyone is performing at their very best.

They made four selections, choosing two defenders, a midfielder and a forward. Kristin Grubka and Shade Pratt come in to beef up the back line, both tough and composed central-defenders; Sarah Killion, an experienced under-20 World Cup Champion, will give Sky Blue another option in the middle of the park; whilst Lo’eau LaBonta will be the player hoping to add more goals to this team, a game-winner with a fantastic presence in the changing room. Their picks were clever ones and will surely help them push on this season, especially on top of the signing of Nadia Nadim who will add countless goals and the return of Australian international Caitlin Foord. With added depth and quality in the squad, there’s no reason why Sky Blue cannot challenge for a play-off place again. Sophie Schmidt will be a player that the team misses in the middle of the park with the Canadian international having announced that she will be sitting this season out as she is committed to competing in the World Cup this summer, but Sky Blue have made the signings necessary to deal without her, to an extent, and are well in with a shout of the top four.

Washington Spirit

Finished 4th in the NWSL last season.

Washington Spirit are another side who have not had the best off-season. If losing top-scorer Jodie Taylor to Portland Thorns wasn’t bad enough, the expected arrival of Bristol Academy’s forward Natasha Harding also fell through due to problems acquiring a visa, meaning she went on to join Manchester City instead. Instead, Spirit captured Harding’s ex-teammate Laura Del Rio, as well as two other foreign forwards in Nigeria’s Francisca Ordega and Argentina’s Estefania Banini. All three are good enough to get goals for their new club, but the latter two are new to the league and could take time to get used to life in America, meaning the goals will not come straight away. Amanda DaCosta, returning to her homeland from Liverpool, will offer good support going forward as well though. The rest of Spirit’s signings have been defensive ones, generally, and with them conceding the third most goals last season, this is perhaps no surprise. Four defenders were acquired in the college draft, as well as three being traded from other teams in the NWSL to help strengthen at the back to ensure the team are not hanging onto a spot in the play-offs like they did in 2014.

It’s difficult to predict how Washington will do in 2015 simply because goals are not guaranteed. They have plenty of defensive options now so should be much better at the back, but whether Ordega and Banini can hit the ground running remains to be seen, and the former is likely to leave for the World Cup too, meaning there is more pressure on Banini, and especially the experienced and reliable Del Rio, to find the back of the net. Also, with so many new additions and lots of change in the squad, I think Spirit will struggle to retain their top four place and will instead undergo something of a transition season, with a low finish likely.

Western New York Flash

Finished 7th in the NWSL last season.

WNYF are one team I can see struggling again this season. Last year, they only managed to finish seventh and they have since lost many of their key players, relying largely on the college draft to fill their squad with talent. Becky Edwards and Whitney Engen have joined from the Dash, but both are defensive minded players who will not replace the goals and assists that will be missed from Carli Lloyd, Samantha Kerr and Abby Wambach. One thing in particular that will annoy fans of the Flash is the timing of Wambach’s decision to not compete in the NWSL this season due to her focus on the World Cup in the summer. With it coming after the college draft, coach Aaran Lines has been unable to replace her up front and they certainly look a little toothless going forward, on paper, despite acquiring Sydney Leroux from Seattle Reign.

As aforementioned, they were busy in the college draft before this though, selecting five young players to bolster their squad. Defenders Abby Dahlkemper and Jaelen Hinkle have been brought in to reduce that huge thirty-eight goals the team conceded last season, midfielder Samantha Mewis, capped three times for the USWNT, has been brought in to strengthen the core of the side, whilst Lynn Williams will be given the tough task of helping to fill the void left by the Flash’s departed attacking trio. Goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo has also been added to their roster to compete with new signing Chantel Jones for that number one jersey.

The desire and hunger that these young players will bring to the team is certainly a positive, but their inexperience in the league could prove to be a problem despite several of them having international experience. Lines needs to decide which will be their strength this season – attack or defence – and to play to that strength, basing tactics and formations around it to guarantee a better season for the Flash. Last year, scoring goals was definitely their forte, but with all the chopping and changing its difficult to determine whether it still will be in 2015. Hopefully, Lines has learned a lot about his new team in pre-season, but us fans know little and this will remain the case until a few games into the new season. The squad will need time to gel though and this will prevent them from finishing much higher than last season, even if they do really gain momentum towards the end of the campaign. It’s a tough call this season, but they are my pick for the dead last spot in 2015.

My final standings prediction: Seattle Reign, Portland Thorns, Kansas City, Chicago Red Stars, Sky Blue, Boston Breakers, Houston Dash, Washington Spirit, Western New York Flash.

You can also see a full list of fixtures for the season ahead here.

Hi, I’m Ameé, I write reguarly about the English Football League on my blog, A Pitchside View, and also women’s football at A Women’s Pitchside View. If you liked this post, please feel free to rate it and also check out other pieces I’ve written on these sites, as well as on Fanthem. Thank you.

Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Ameé Ruszkai

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