This week, we preview five NWSL teams as the league's fifth regular season starts Easter Weekend. We will look at Portland Thorns, Washington Spirit, Chicago Red Stars, North Carolina Courage and Seattle Reign this week, with the remaining 5 teams profiled next week. We are presenting the teams in order of last season's regular season finish.
NWSL Season 5 Preview
Portland Thorns—First—12-5-3 (W-D-L) for 41 points
The Thorns should comfortably make the playoffs again, which would be a fourth consecutive season for head coach Mark Parsons—a one-time Chelsea assistant—across two clubs (Portland and Washington). Danish international Nadia Nadim (who was born in Afghanistan) scored nine goals last season (4th in the league) with 3 assists and again will pair with Canadian veteran Christine Sinclair up top. Sinclair scored 6 goals in only 11 games last season as she had Olympic Games commitments. In June, they will be joined by Australian international Ashleigh Sykes (Canberra United), who was the top goal scorer this past winter in the Westfield W-League. This is a side that is loaded with talent—particularly in midfield—with France's Amadeine Henry, Iceland's Dagny Brynjarsdottir (who had five goals last season), along with American international Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan. In the back, the Thorns have U.S. internationals Emily Sonnett and Megan Klingenberg and solid American Emily Menges (ex-Georgetown). Goalkeeper Michelle Betos moved to Norway in the offseason so backup Adrianna Franch and newly acquired Britt Eckerstrom—who is a U.S. national team pool player—from the North Carolina Courage will backstop the goal-happy Thorns, whose 35 last season was second only to the Champion Flash's 40 goals. Parsons has not shied away from the idea that there is always pressure to deliver a championship to the city—which won the initial crown in 2013—with an average crowd last season of just under 17,000 a game. He certainly has the talent in his side to deliver that crown in 2017.
Washington Spirit—Second—12-3-5 for 39 points
The Spirit finished runners-up in a pulsating final loss in penalty kicks to the Western New York Flash (now North Carolina Courage) last season. Head Coach Jim Gabarra has been under siege from fans during the offseason, losing Crystal Dunn to Chelsea and trading Canadian international Diana Matheson (4 goals) and Christine Nairn (3 goals and 3 assists) to Seattle and 2015 World Cup winning defender Ali Krieger to Orlando as well as young defender Megan Oyster to Boston (in exchange for U.S. international Kristie Mewis—who has played club ball in Australia, Germany and Japan—and Kasey Kallman, who won a league crown in 2014 with FC Kansas City. Argentinian import Estefania Banini was the leading scorer last season (5 goals and 1 assist in only 13 matches). Katie Stengel (ex-Bayern Munich) scored 4 goals last season in NWSL and 6 tallies down under this past winter with the Western Sydney Wanderers. Look for Gabarra to bring in another forward with experience abroad; he discovered Nadia Nadim when he was coaching Sky Blue FC. If the Spirit is lingering out of the playoff spots by midseason it could be lights out for Gabarra.
Chicago Red Stars—third—9-6-5 for 33 points
Chicago Red Stars looks very similar to last year's successful side and is loaded with high caliber players, led by U.S. international goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, forward Christian Press and a bevy of young talent that played well in Australia in the offseason, including Sofia Huerta (7 goals in NWSL and 8 with Adelaide United), midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo (4 goals with Perth Glory), defender Arin Gilliland (4 goals) and forward Jen Hoy (5 goals)—both with Newcastle Jets. Head Coach Rory Dames will look to guide the team to its third straight playoff berth and past the semifinals for the first time. This team historically is built on draft choices and players groomed in their top notch Chicago Red Eleven WPSL side, but they could bring in an international star to help spur the team on.
North Carolina Courage (formerly the Western New York Flash—Fourth--9-5-6 for 32 points
The Flash was a tremendous scoring force in 2016 and led the league with 40 goals, powered by two of the top three scorers in the league in Lynn Williams (11 goals) and Jessica McDonald (10 goals). The team's sale to more southern climbs was announced in January, with the Flash entering the amateur UWS summer league, based in Buffalo. Head Coach Paul Riley is a brilliant motivator but his biggest challenge is making sure this team doesn't settle with last year's title, while still energizing a new market which was good to the WUSA in 2001-2003. Brazilians Rosana and Debrina will look to add some panache, while New Zealand international Abby Ercig can play in the back and in the middle of the park; her experience and guidance was probably under-appreciated last year by many followers of the game. Two new signings arrive with international experience: midfielder Yuri Kawamura of Japan signed last week—she was on the 2015 World Cup runner-up side and played for Albirex Niigata Lades, Jef United Ichihara Chiba Ladies and Vegalta Sendai at home. She has 32 caps and 2 goals. 2016 rookie Sam Wittemann also joined from Orlando—she also spend some time on loan last season with Apollon Limassol in Cyprus. Liverpool native Riley is suspended from their opening game against Washington away on April 15—a rematch of last year's final.—after being ejected in last year's semifinal in a misunderstanding with the referee and sitting out the final; serving a two game suspension and having been fined as well.
Seattle Reign—Fifth—8-6-6 for 30 points
Former Arsenal manager Laura Harvey could guide her team back to first place—as they did in 2014 and 2015—based on strength of roster alone. Hope Solo is gone as is Kim Little, back to Arsenal. If Megan Rapinoe can keep focused on the game and not on trying to replace Hope Solo as the lightning rod for any perceived slight at the club and national team level—that would be a good start. Japanese internationals Nahomi Kawasumi and Rumi Utsugi have both returned to the club. A number of Reign players wintered in Australia: Jess Fishlock (Wales), Lauren Barnes and Bev Yanez won a title with Melbourne City along with two new signings: Rebekah Stott (New Zealand international who spent two years in Germany with SC Sand) and Australian international Larissa Crummer, who won the Golden Boot for Melbourne City in 2015/16 with 11 goals. Picking up Canadian international Diana Matheson for the midfield from Washington could be an inspired move for the future, though the 33 year old is expected to miss this season due to an ACL injury. 2016 College Cup winner at USC and Mexican international Katie Johnson could be the sleeper of the rookie class and should blossom under Harvey's excellent tutelage. A late addition last week was former Florida State University's Michaela Hahn, who won a College Cup with the Seminoles in 2014 and scored one goal and one assist with the Flash last season in 13 games; Hawn was picked up off of waivers when the Courage released her this week.
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribalfootball. His latest book is Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey