This week we look at the first quarter of the NWSL season, after the games on April 29, with the two table toppers having played six games of their 24 game 2018 regular season schedule and most of the other sides having played 5. We touch on the highlights for each of the nine NWSL sides. Grant it, there have been players missing for international friendlies or World Cup Qualifiers in Europe, South America, while the Australians and Japanese missed the entire first part of the season with camps and then Women's Asian Cup matches, so a team's play and results could be completely different in a few months, but we are seeing some early trends.We examine each team's based on their regular season standing as of the end of April.
We also look at two new United Women's Soccer league teams in Texas for 2018 and review the European Women's Champions League semifinals, with the Final later this month in Kiev.
2018 NWSL Season to Date
North Carolina Courage (5-1-0-16 points—First)
Liverpool native head coach Paul Riley has quickly turned this club into a juggernaut, with two consecutive NWSL Finals appearances and a title win in 2016. Last season's Regular Season champions started off with four consecutive wins, before tying the Utah Royals 2-2 at home on April 21. They then defeated the Houston Dash on the road on April 28 to take 16 out of 18 points possible. Crystal Dunn's return to the league after time with Chelsea has been an added sparkplug (with three goals this season) to this high scoring club (an NWSL best 11 goals), which has always had the twin towers of Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams (3 goals and 3 assists combined so far this season) propelling the offense since 2016, when they won the league crown in Rochester/Buffalo, New York. Week Three League Player of the Week award winner McCall Zerboni had two goals in the 4-2 road win over the Washington Spirit on April 14. She won the Player of the Week award again for Week 5 with a strong midfield performance, assisting both the defense and offense in the 2-0 road victory over Houston. Abby Dahlkemper, the 2017 League Defender of the Year, set a league record with 5,850 consecutive minutes played and had started in 67 consecutive league matches before she was not included in the opening lineup against Seattle at home on April 18. She was in the process of receiving a Therapeutic Use Exemption for a product prescribed by her personal doctor for some time by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The issue has since been solved and she has been cleared to play by U.S. Soccer. Canadian international goalkeeper Sabrina D'Angelo is back as the starter after ceding two-thirds of the starts last year to Katelyn Rowland. D'Angelo has 4 clean sheets in 5 games, conceding only 2 goals for a very impressive 0.40 goals against average. With almost double the number of points of second place side Chicago Red Stars (16 points versus 9 after 6 games each), the Courage is again separating from the pack and NWSL sides are still trying to counteract their high press and attacking style, which they always see but continues to be hard to defend against.
Chicago Red Stars (2-3-1-9 points—Second)
Christen Press is gone—forgoing playing in Houston with the Dash to join her former club in Gothenburg, Sweden—but even without last year's League's Player of the Year in Sam Kerr, who was not released to play until the end of the Asian Cup in mid-April and has only played 90 minutes with her new club, Chicago quietly and effectively has managed to rack up points with only 1 loss in 6 games. Sofia Huerta has been a force up front with 2 goals and 2 assists and was named Player of the Month for April while veteran forward Alyssa Mautz has contributed 3 tallies. Danielle Colaprico had a scorcher of a long-range goal against the Utah Royals for the difference maker in the Salt Lake City club's home opener in front of 19,203 fans on April 14, a 1-0 victory for the visitors. She also has 2 assists. U.S. international goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher has played every match so far and has a 1.00 goals against average in 6 games with 2 shutouts.
Portland Thorns (2-2-1-8 points--Third)
The reigning league champions have used 4 goals from Christine Sinclair—two from the penalty spot—with two assists to get off to a fast start. The Thorns only loss came in a repeat of last season's championship game, with the Courage wining this one 1-0 at home on opening day (March 24). Former Paris St. Germain and current U.S. international Lindsey Horan has been very strong in an attacking midfield role with 2 goals and 1 assist. The Thorns will get a boost from returning Australian internationals Caitlin Foord (Sydney FC and ex-Sky Blue FC), Ellie Carpenter (Canberra United) and Haley Raso (Brisbane Roar). New addition Swiss international Ana Crnogocevic has been playing up top in her first season in the league but some followers of the game in Europe feel she is a more compelling defender than forward. It will be interesting to see how ex-Chelsea assistant coach Mark Parsons uses her this season.
Seattle Reign (2-1-1-7 points—Fourth)
The Reign may have a new head coach in Vlatko Andonovski from FC Kansas City and new talent NWSL with NWSL experience in U.S. international Allie Long (Portland) and English international Jodie Taylor (Arsenal/Melbourne City)—both with one goal this season—but this is still Megan Rapinoe's team. She scored and assisted on Jodie Taylor's winner in the home opener on March 24 over the Washington Spirit, which was deemed a Player of the Week performance. American goalkeeper Michelle Betos, who played last year in Norway with Valerenga, has been stellar in goal, particularly in their 1-1 tie versus Orlando on April 29; she has a 0.75 goals against average while surrendering only three goals in four games. Defender Megan Oyster, acquired in the Boston Breakers dispersal draft, has been another strong offseason acquisition from within the NWSL. Ghana international forward Elizabeth Addo has yet to arrive from Sweden and should be an additional boost to the offense. With two games in hand compared with North Carolina and Chicago and one over Portland, the Reign is certainly well positioned to move up the table.
Washington Spirit(1-2-2-5 points—Tied for Fifth)
Last season's joint bottom side with the now defunct Boston Breakers have looked much better this season, starting with a strong 2-0 home win on May 31 over the Orlando Pride in front of 4,989 at the Maryland SoccerPlex, with goals from Mallory Pugh and Ashley Hatch (last season's rookie of the year in North Carolina, who also had an assist). Francisca Ordega (Nigeria) has been strong up front, leading the club with 3 goals, while Yanara Aedo (Chile) and Estefania Banini (Argentina) were in South America for the Feminine Copa America, where their teams finished second and third respectively. The Spirit will be in a tight race for a playoff spot but U.S. international Mallory Pugh (2 goals and 1 assist) brings a different energy and skill level, which the side consistently feeds off of.
Orlando Pride (1-2-2-5 points—Tied for Fifth)
Orlando, which made the semifinals last season in their second season, saw their Brazilians and Australians miss either all or most of the season so far, but of more concern than the record was that their second home game of the season on April 22 attracted only 3,890 on a Sunday afternoon—after 9,017 saw their season opener on March 24 against Utah. The following week was a more palatable 5,058 for the Seattle Reign's visit but was still below last season's average 6,186. Tom Sermanni felt that the media had to help sell the club and the sport. Could it be that a discerning football market chose to pass on a game without Marta, Poliana and Allana Kennedy, away on World Cup Qualifying duty? Chioma Ubogagu (the London-born ex-Arsenal striker) and Marta each have two goals so far this year. 2015 Women's World Cup winners Alex Morgan (0 goals) and Sydney Leroux (0 goals)—a new acquisition from Utah/FC Kansas City—should increase their goals tally as the season goes on, as both have been active on the field and had their chances. Their scoring is crucial as the Pride has only 4 goals in 5 games; if that scoring ratio does not increase appreciably, they will remain outside of a playoff spot as the season continues.
Utah Royals (0-4-1-4 Points—Seventh)
A hit in the stands, with crowds of 19,203and 8,446 for their first two home games, the Utah Royals record is deceiving—four ties in five matches is not a bad start for a team with a new head coach (Laura Harvey from Seattle), a number of new players including imports new to America and settling in a new city (Salt Lake City after transferring from Kansas City).
A number of internationals are new this season including Diana Matheson, a Canadian international, Norwegian international forward Elise Thorsnes (Canberra United), Australian international Katrina Gorry (Brisbane Roar) and 29-year-old Iceland's international midfielder Gunnhildur Jonsdottir (Valerenga of Norway), who scored the first goal in club history in their first game at Orlando (with an assist from Matheson) and then went to score a goal in two World Cup road qualifiers (5-0 at the Faroe Islands and 2-0 at Slovenia). Katie Stengel (Newcastle Jets), a U.S. youth international, came from the Boston Breakers and is largely underrated by some around the league, though she had a stellar time at Bayern Munich a few years ago. U.S. international forward Amy Rodriguez scored her first goal last week after missing last season with an ACL tear and 2016 on maternity leave; her productivity and energetic play is vital for this club. Goalkeeper Abby Smith (a U.S. youth international and full national team pool player), whoplayed two years with the Boston Breakers, has been quite good in goal, allowing only 5 goals in 5 matches with a 1.00 goals against average. Stengel and Thorsnes need to increase their productivity (1 goal between them) but Laura Harvey is one of the best coaches in the business and this team should be in the playoff mix at the end of the season as long as they don't fall too far behind the pack with their series of draws.
Houston Dash (0-2-3-2 points—Eighth)
This is a much different Dash side than in past years; veteran national team coach Vera Pauw (Netherlands, Russia, South Africa) is building the side from the back and they are a tough side to beat, surrendering only 7 goals in 5 games. Unfortunately they have only scored once; this club is probably a two year project to exorcise the ghosts of Randy Waldron's constant train wreck of team building over three-plus seasons. The club was really hurt when Christen Press refused to report after her trade from Chicago and ditched the league for Gothenburg of the Swedish Damallsvenskan. That could hurt her national team career for France or the future—the federation tends to have a long memory of these player power situations and the league is federation managed, so it will be interesting to watch. (To date, Press has started well in Sweden with 4 goals in 3 games to place second in league scoring behind Germany's Anja Mittag of Rosengard, who has 5). U.S. international Jane Campbell (ex-Stanford University), who was phenomenal as a rookie last season, allowing only 24 goals in 16 matches, has allowed 7 goals in 5 games. English international forward Rachel Daly is back for her third season, having scored 7 goals with 6 assists in her time in a Dash jersey, but is now playing in defense. Look for Pauw to sign an import at forward during the campaign to work with Kaelia Ohai, who just came back in their fourth game to play for the first time since tearing her ACL last season, though Australian international forward Kyah Simon should help greatly up front. Pauw has definitely geared up the side's defense but this team has to up its present offensive production of one goal every five games or they will stay near the bottom of the table.
Sky Blue FC (0-1-2-1 point—Ninth)
Sky Blue FC have only played three games this season, the fewest of any club. The Piscataway, New Jersey based club, has scored only 1 goal in those 3 games, in their third match which was a 1-1 tie versus Chicago on April 21, with a goal from U.S. international pool player Savannah McCaskill—the number 2 draft choice in the 2018 College draft. Katie Johnson (the Mexican international from USC) should be an asset upfront (1 assist this year) after scoring 4 goals with 2 assists in largely a backup role in Seattle last season. Sky Blue has a number of games in hand to play but must adjust to life after Sam Kerr—who lit up this side and the league last season. New head coach Denise Reddy is savvy enough to help this side figure out its personality, but like Houston, this may be a 2019 fruition project.
United Women's Soccer expands to El Paso and Austin, Texas
El Paso ASA and FC Austin Elite have joined the UWS Summer league for the 2018 season, the league's third year. El Paso ASA is owned by Advanced Soccer Academy and David Lopez will serve as their first head coach. As one of the most successful soccer academies in El Paso, ASA will look to change the local soccer culture by providing a platform for elite female players within and around the community. El Paso ASA will be designed to provide a pathway for players to the collegiate and professional levels. El Paso ASA will play its UWS matches at Socorro Athletic Complex; an 11,000 seat state-of-the-art high school American football/soccer stadium. . El Paso, the Western Texas city bordering New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua, is located just across the Rio Grande River from Juarez, Mexico. Juarez successfully hosted the 2008 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament, won by the U.S. with Canada advancing to China as well. The games with Mexico attracted close to sellout crowds of 20,000 and showed that women's football has interest in Northern Mexico. With Juarez being over 1.3 Million people, cross border fans could help this team to be successful and provide a pipeline of talent from the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
FC Austin Elite was created as a grassroots effort to provide high level women's soccer for all of Austin. The team is comprised of seasoned local players combined with talented college players from around the country. The organization strives to provide a great game day environment and atmosphere for fans, especially young aspiring players, to see quality players in their community. FC Austin Elite will be led by Jamie Meshew, who is the interim head coach at Lamar University. She played at Vanderbilt University and in the summer of 2010 led the U.S. Women's U-18 Team USA squad to a bronze medal in the United World Games. She also is fluent in Spanish, which is an asset in coaching football in the Southwest.
UEFA Women's Champions League Semifinals Review
Both English Super League clubs fell at the Semifinal Stage of the Women's Champions League last month. Lyon and Wolfsburg both advanced to the Women's Champions League Final on May 24 in Kyiv, Ukraine, stopping Manchester City's and Chelsea's path respectively to a first ever WCL Final appearance. Lyon tied Man City on the road in the first leg 0-0 and then won at home through a remarkable volley by English international Lucy Bronze, in her first season with the French side. Wolfsburg had an easier journey, winning 3-1 and 2-0 for a 5-1 aggregate victory.
Lyon will be making their record seventh Final game appearance, having won the title four times, in 2011, 2012, 2016 and 2017. They could be the first club to win three in a row. VfL Wolfsburg is making its fourth final game appearance, after winning in 2013 (over Lyon) and 2014, and losing in 2016 (to Lyon).
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey