This week we preview the nine NWSL teams for the 2018 season. We look at each team's changes from last season and prospects for 2018, in order of how they finished the regular season in 2017.
NWSL Preview for 2018
North Carolina Courage (16-1-7-49 points—First)
Liverpool native head coach Paul Riley has quickly turned this club into a juggernaut, entering only his third season with the franchise. They shocked the NWSL by winning the league title in 2016 as the Western New York Flash and made the Final again last season after their move to Cary, North Carolina in late 2016, falling to Portland 1-0. The organization is run by a NASL/USL Pro men's side and crowds were much higher than in Rochester, finishing with 4,389 a game for fourth in the league in 2017, up from 3,868 in 2016 and only 2,860 in 2015. The Courage have added U.S. international forward Crystal Dunn (returning from Chelsea of the WSL Super League), who led the NWSL in scoring in 2015 with 15 goals and has been an important scorer for the U.S. National Team since the 2015 World Cup, when she was one of the last cuts from the squad that went on to win the FIFA title in Canada.
New additions for 2018 include: five year NWSL veteran and former U.S. youth international Merritt Mathias (ex-Seattle Reign and an NWSL champion with FC Kansas City in 2014), who will add bite in midfield. Canadian international midfielder Alyssa Chapman is a strong addition from the remnants of the Boston Breakers; Chapman previously lined up for the Dash and clubs in Sweden. Republic of Ireland international Denise O'Sullivan, who scored the winner in the semifinal win over Chicago last fall, returns after joining the side in midseason from Houston. Other returning imports are New Zealand center back Abby Ercig, Brazilian midfielder Debinha (4 goals, 2 assists in 2017), Japanese international Yuri Kawamura and Canadian goalkeeper Sabrina D'Angelo. The U.S. international core of midfielders Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis and forwards Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald all return.
Portland Thorns (14-5-5-47 points--Second)
Portland just missed out winning the NWSL Shield for the regular season title but took home the league title after defeating the Courage 1-0 in Orlando. This strong team has continued to load up with Australian internationals, adding Caitlin Foord (Sydney FC and ex-Sky Blue FC) and young defender Ellie Carpenter (Canberra United) to holdover Haley Raso, who had a hugely impactful year on the wing with 6 goals and 3 assists in 22 matches in Portland, plus 4 goals for Brisbane Roar this winter. Brazilian Andressinha is a new addition from Houston, where the U-17, U-20 and full Women's World Cup veteran played for three seasons, while two-time Thorns NWSL champion midfielder Allie Long was shipped up the I-5 highway to Seattle. Britt Eckerstrom is a capable backup (acquired in the Boston Breakers dispersal draft) to Adrianna Franch, who had a phenomenal season in 2017, with a league record 11 shutouts and a league best Goals Against Average (GAA) of 0.83. She also led the league in save percentage (80%). The Thorns led the league in defense, surrendering only 20 goals in 24 matches.
Iceland's international midfielder Dagny Brynjarsdottir (ex-Florida State University and Bayern Munich) will miss all of 2018 on maternity leave from the league. Danish international forward Nadia Nadim has left the league, taking her 6 goals and 3 assists to Manchester City, but with returning midfielders and U.S. internationals Tobin Heath—who missed most of last season—and former Paris St. Germain star Lindsey Horan (4 goals and 2 assists), this is still a potent offensive team, which scored 37 goals for fifth best in the league and only eight tallies behind league leaders Orlando Pride (45 goals).
Orlando Pride (11-7-6-40 points—Third)
The third year team that was added in 2016 is owned by the local MLS club and reached their first playoff berth in 2017, with Marta of Brazil (13 goals) and American star Alex Morgan (9 goals) teaming up for 22 goals. American Rachel Hill had a monster season for Perth (9 goals) this winter after scoring 3 goals with 1 assist in 14 games in her rookie year for the Pride; she should definitely see more playing time in 2018.
Former Seattle Reign goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer should push U.S. international Ashlyn Harris for playing time after a winter as starter for Canberra United in the W-League. Canadian international defender Shelina Zadorsky will provide support on the backline—the ex-Washington Spirit player from the University of Michigan has spent time abroad in Australia and Sweden. Another important acquisition is U.S. international Sydney Leroux up front (from Utah Royals/FC Kansas City) who had 6 goals and 2 assists last season. Rookie Nadia Gomes (Brigham Young University) was called up and played in the recent Algarve Cup side for the host nation, which finished in third place—an all-time best; she scored against Australia in the 2-1 win in the Algarve Cup third place match and had 2 goals in 8 games for Portugal's U-19 team during the most recent U-19 European Championships. Another international addition is Australia's Emily Van Egmond, who played with Seattle and Chicago in seasons 1 and 2 in the NWSL and scored 4 goals in the 2017/18 W-League season to help Newcastle Jets make the playoffs for only the second time in their history; she joins her former Australian National Team coach Tom Sermanni and holdover Alanna Kennedy (a W-League title winner with Melbourne City this winter), replacing in a sense national teammate Steph Catley who was traded to Seattle. A late trade this week saw Swedish youth international Lotta Okvist (21) come from Houston in exchange for a third round pick in the 2019 College Draft, who had picked up her rights from the Boston Breakers dispersal draft. This team should again make the playoffs, led by their firepower of Marta, Morgan and Hill.
Chicago Red Stars (11-6-7-39 points—Fourth)
U.S. 2015 WWC winner Christen Press and her 11 goals and 4 assists in 2017 for Chicago was shipped to Houston (in theory—see more below in the Dash section) and will be replaced up top by Australian international forward Sam Kerr, the all-time NWSL scoring leader with 52 tallies. Kerr scored the most goals in one NWSL season last year with 17 for Sky Blue FC, who went the last few months of the season with a nominal head coach but was effectively a committee coaching arrangement; reports were that Kerr wanted out of New Jersey. Kerr also missed the W-League playoffs this past winter with Perth after a late season dearth of wins. Despite the loss of Press, this team still is still loaded with talent and includes Sofia Huerta, the former Mexican international who was capped last year by the U.S. (6 goals and 4 assists in 2017), midfielders Arin Gilliland (6 goals in Australia with Newcastle this winter), Vanessa DiBernardo (12 goals in two seasons with Perth Glory in two seasons) and U.S. national teamer Julie (Johnston) Ertz, who moved up from defense to great effect, finishing with 4 goals and 3 assists. Japanese international forward Yuki Nagasato was slowed by a knee injury in 2017 and was not able to show what she is capable of, appearing in 6 regular season games but still recording 1 goal and 2 assists. New Zealand international Rosie White was picked up in the Breaker dispersal draft and scored 4 goals and 1 assist in her rookie season in Boston.
Rory Daines is an accomplished coach and has been with the side since 2011, when he coached Chicago in the WPS and then WPSL-Elite. The team is celebrating its tenth season of operation, dating back to the Women's Professional Soccer launch in 2009—a laudable achievement in women's professional soccer, leaving it with the longest professional legacy since the Boston Breakers folded, who traced their legacy back to their WUSA founding in 2001, though they had not played continually between the end of WSUA after the 2003 season and WPS's beginning. Daimes has been Chicago's only coach in the NWSL. He has a pattern of playing that is effective for his talent. They will be solid but after three consecutive seasons of semifinal losses, the Red Stars could either be finalists or just miss the playoffs, depending on how teams like Utah and Houston perform this season, particularly in head-to-head games.
Seattle Reign (9-7-8-34 points—Fifth)
This team will look appreciably different from past seasons as two-time NWSL champion head coach Vlatko Andonovski moves from FC Kansas City to replace ex-Arsenal coach Laura Harvey, who joined new side Utah Royals—which effectively inherited the players from FC Kansas City from the league, which folded the KC side (confused yet?). There will be pressure on Andonovski to take the Reign to the playoffs, as they narrowly missed the postseason two years in a row after making the finals in 2014 and 2015—losing both times to Andonovski-coached FC KC sides. Former U.S. international Yael Averbuch joins her former coach from FC KC/Utah Royals. English international forward Jodie Taylor comes from Arsenal by way of Melbourne City, where she won a title this winter. Ghana international forward Elizabeth Addo is an inspired pickup from Europe, who has scored freely in Sweden, Hungary and Serbia, as well as at home and in neighboring Nigeria at the club level. Danish international defender Theresa Nielsen moves from Norwegian side Valerenga to play for the first time in America. U.S. international midfield Allie Long moves up the road from Portland and will supply balls to the newcomers as well as holdover wingers Megan Rapinoe—who scored 12 goals and 1 assist last season but lost some games due to injury—and Beverly Yanez (4 goals and 1 assist). Australian international wingback Steph Catley was acquired from Orlando to join international teammate Lydia Williams (goalkeeper) and is a dynamic force on the wing.
Two Japanese internationals, Rumi Utsugi and Noho Kawasumi, are important returning cores on the team and Jess Fishlock (who has won three consecutive W-League titles with Melbourne City, plus one the year before with Melbourne Victory and made another Grand Final in five seasons down under) is crucial in the middle of the park, contributing 7 goals and 2 assists for Seattle last season and 7 (2 in the playoffs) for Melbourne City as they won the Grand Final once again.
Some strong American acquisitions besides Long includes forward Jasmyne Spencer (3 goals and 4 assists last season in Orlando) and U.S. international pool defender Megan Oyster and midfielder Morgan Andrews, a rookie last year from USC, with both being picked up in the Boston Breakers draft. Oyster could shore up the defense since Scottish international Rachel Corsie was released after last season (but recently signed by Utah and Harvey). Another esteemed departure was Australian international Larissa Crummer, who was waived earlier this year. She was signed from Melbourne City ahead of the 2017 season but came into Seattle's camp with a major injury sustained late in the season in Australia—which limited her to only 4 appearances—but played well with Melbourne City this winter, finishing with 3 goals. With the coaching change from Laura Harvey to Vltako Andonovski and inevitable roster shuffling, Crummer seemed to be caught up in a numbers game. The 22-year-old forward should soon find a club in America or Europe.
Sky Blue FC (10-3-11-33 points—Tied for Sixth)
The New Jersey club, based at Rutgers University's Yurcak Field, which is located about 90 minutes south of New York City, struggled to a disappointing finish after being in the top four for most of the first half of the 2017 season. Australian international Sam Kerr took her season and career goal-scoring exploits to Chicago but U.S. 2015 World Cup Final hat trick hero Carli Lloyd is a significant pickup from Houston in the same trade and will play where she went to college, which should energize her game, which suffered from a lack of intensity at times in Houston—something which seemed endemic across the roster. New head coach Denise Reddy knows the U.S. game and the Sky Blue organization well, as she was a head coach there in the W-League days, played and coached for years in Sweden and spent the last two years with the Washington Spirit as assistant to former Sky Blue FC head coach Jim Gabarra, including their 2016 NWSL Finals appearance.
Some new acquisitions include New Zealand international Rebekka Stott from Seattle, Brazilian international Thaisa (from Ferroviaria in Brazil) and Canadian international forward Janine Beckie of Canada from Houston (2 goals and 1 assist) and Breaker demise pickups Canadian international forward Adriana Leon (6 goals and 6 assists in 2017) and rookie and U.S. international pool player Savannah McCaskill, the number 2 draft choice in the 2018 College draft. Other veteran American acquisitions include forwards Jen Hoy from Chicago (2 goals and 2 assists in 2017) and Shea Groom (5 goals and 6 assists in 2017) from Utah/FC KC.
Solid returning holdovers are Sarah Killion (5 goals and 2 assists in 2017) and Daphne Corboz (1 goal and 5 assists), who is an American but is playing internationally for her parents' home country of France.
Canadian international goalkeeper Caitlyn Sheridan played well as a rookie, starting 22 games, but surrendered 47 goals; she did record 3 clean sheets for a defense that was the worst in the league and surrendered 51 goals in 24 games, three more than joint last place Washington Spirit. Sheridan had a save percentage of 64%, last season, twelfth among league goalkeepers.
Raquel Rodriguez, a Costa Rican international midfielder and fulcrum for the offense, played in Perth in the offseason and will look to a strong season ahead of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers, with her team aiming for a second consecutive WWC berth.
Another key departure besides Kerr is English international pool forward Leah Galton, who had two solid years with Sky Blue but joined Bayern Munich last December.
Utah Royals—as FC Kansas City (9-6-9-33 Points—Tied for Sixth)
In some ways the Salt Lake City-based Royals are an expansion team but inherited the roster of the FC Kansas City franchise that the league took over, after failing to find local ownership in Missouri/Kansas. This team will be much different as the Royals and Seattle essentially swapped coaches, with Vlatko Andonovski going to Seattle and Laura Harvey taking the Utah job. The parent organization is Real Salt Lake, which owns MLS and USL Pro second division teams and is one of the best run organizations in the country; their owner has stated that the club will apply the same standards for the women's side as the men.
FC KC Canadian international defensive-mid Desiree Scott (ex-Notts County in 2014-16), U.S. 2015 World Cup winning defender Becky Sauerbrunn, former U.S. international goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, New Zealand international and two-time World Cup Finals defender Katie Bowen and line-mate Brittany (Taylor) Kolmel of the U.S. comprise a strong core of FC Kansas City players to build around, but Kolmel is taking a leave of absence from the professional game. Scottish international Rachel Corsie steps in with her former boss from Seattle to help shore up the defense as well, for her fourth season in the NWSL.
New additions include Diana Matheson, a Canadian international who was injured last year in Seattle; she should add depth in midfield. Katie Stengel finished second in the Australian W-League in goals with 10 in 2017/18 and was selected in the Boston Breakers dispersal draft. Australian international Katrina Gorry scored two goals this winter for Premiership winners Brisbane Roar and in her last stint in NWSL, won a league title with FC Kansas City in 2014. She is joined by Norwegian international forward Elise Thorsnes, who led Canberra United with 6 goals in 2017/18 and Iceland's international midfielder Gunnhildur Jonsdottir (29), who has played for years in Norway—including last season with Valerenga—and has over 50 caps for her country. U.S. international Kelley O'Hara comes from Sky Blue FC and is still one of the most dynamic wing-backs in the game.
Annie Hawkins (ex-Gonzaga University) was a long-time leader for the club's UWS side the past two seasons (missing the playoffs both years). Previous incarnations of the club played in the WPSL as Sparta Salt Lake (2008-2011), Salt Lake United (2012) after a partnership between RSL and the Utah Soccer Association and then changed to the branding of the MLS club for the 2013 season. The franchise made the league championship final in 2011 and 2013. They will continue to field a team in the semi-professional UWS loop this summer, where Hawkins will probably play after not making the regular season roster, but she could likely see some amateur call-ups for games while some internationals are away during non-FIFA windows.
Laura Harvey's excellent coaching record and extensive knowledge of the league and international players should see the team quickly be competitive and in the hunt for a playoff spot by the end of the season.
Houston Dash (7-2-15-23 points—Eight)
The fifth year Dash should finally discard their 'team dysfunction' moniker that some NWSL followers have labeled them with, as the club purged head coach Randy Waldron last May and then interim head coach Omar Morales after the season, probably rightly deeming him too inexperienced for this level. This club has always needed a strong head coach who understood the international game and they came up winners by bringing in Vera Pauw, the former Dutch international defender who has coached the national teams of her home country, Russia, Scotland and South Africa. She has cleaned the decks by bringing in new acquisitions such as Australian international forward Kyah Simon and seemingly American international Christen Press up front. Unfortunately Kyah Simon was hurt at the end of W-League season and she won't report until after the AFC WWC qualifiers in April, which she has been cleared for. Also, it was reported on March 9 that Christen Press would not report to the Dash. She had wanted a change after four years in Chicago. She first vetoed a proposed trade to the Utah Royals, then changed her mind but by that point, some of the other players involved in the complicated moves had been shifted. She was one-third of the blockbuster trade that sent Carli Lloyd from Houston to Sky Blue FC, Sam Kerr to Chicago from New Jersey and herself to Houston. This is another oddity of the American league, which is run by the U.S. Soccer Federation. Press is one of the National Team allocated players that have their NWSL salaries (typically in the $40,000-$45,000 range—compared to the league minimum of $15,750 for the six month season—typically for an end of the roster player or low draft choice from college) covered by U.S. Soccer as part of their annual contract. Press, never known as the easiest person to deal with in any situation, has been adamant that Houston is not a right fit for her. Houston could trade the petulant player and receive less compensation than they rightly should, or she could go overseas, though France's, England's and Germany's transfer windows are closed. Sweden's is open and she played well for Gothenburg and Tyreso before coming to the NWSL, but with CONCACAF Women's World Cup Qualifying in October and then camps and friendlies ahead of the World Cup, most national team players will want to be Stateside to facilitate national team call-ups. Press reported has told U.S. Soccer that she still wants to play in NWSL. We are all for player rights, but unfortunately in this situation the Dash—grant it they should have communicated with her before the trade and failed to do so—will end up with a sizeable hole in their front line when the season starts. A right mess this is and not of Vera Pauw's making and it is a poor way to welcome her to the league; Press has to find a team soon or she won't be considered for national team duty.
Pauw had some insightful comments on the Press situation as she talked to reporters earlier this week and was asked if she found the situation distracting to her preseason training: "It is a distraction because we want her here, but we deal with the players that are here. As you've seen on the pitch, the players are not affected by it at all. They just go for it, and we've created a fantastic team, hardworking, committed and everybody wants to be here. I think that is what we want to have. We want to have it live, a hardworking team with recognizable football which means, soccer for you, which means that you can see that players are playing their tasks and within that. We will see how far we get. Of course, we would've hoped to have her here, but for now, she's not here." She added from an international perspective her thoughts on the system the created a star player being able to refuse to play after a trade: "This league has a draft system and a trading system that is to get competitiveness. I am a huge fan, and that is a key reason why I came here. Every system also has its downsides; in Europe, players are completely free, they can do whatever they want, they can sign with transfer fees but really in Europe, all their leagues have no competitiveness. There are only two teams that are good, maybe a third team. In England, there are three teams; in France there are two teams; and in Germany there are actually only two teams; in Holland is one team; in Sweden is two teams, and Norway is one team and all the others are part of a league and cannot win and that is because it is completely free. So that is the downside of that system. If you take the starting point of sport as the key element of building your league, then it is a huge example for the rest of the world, in a sports mentality. In a way you build your leagues whether it is soccer, whether it is basketball, whether it is football, all the team sports, and everybody needs to deal with the little parts that are not working, and I am very proud to be part of a league that is going for competitiveness and is going for growth of sport, and I would like to add that."
Twenty-one year old forward Thembi Kgatlana and 19-year-old midfielder Linda Motlhalo (both of South Africa) follow Pauw from her last job as national team coach and will join holdover South African national team defender and captain Janine van Wyk, who was a positive addition last year. Meleana Shim, a former U.S. U-23 international, was picked up after playing last year for Vaxjo in Sweden, which ran away with the second division title and was promoted for 2018 to the Damallsvenskan. In five years in Portland, she scored 9 goals and was frequently a productive sub.
American forward Kealia Ohai is back and should provide solid leadership and hopefully will return to her 2016 scoring levels (11 goals and 4 assists) as opposed to last season (2 goals and 2 assists) in only 10 games, after which she tore her ACL in June and missed the rest of the season. Mexican international goalkeeper Bianca Henninger should be healthy for a full year and played with her national side at the Turkish Women's Cup earlier this month. She will provide solid competition for U.S. international Jane Campbell (ex-Stanford University) who was phenomenal as a rookie last season, allowing only 24 goals in 16 matches.Kristie Mewis, a U.S. international wingback, joined the Dash late in the season and should provide solid leadership, having played in Australia, Germany and Japan. The Dash is her fifth NWSL club as she enters her sixth season in the league. English international forward Rachel Daly is back for her third season, having scored 9 goals with 6 assists in her time in a Dash jersey.
Vera Pauw is a veteran coach and respected around the world; she will have this club on a competitive path to its first playoff berth ever, if not in 2018 then definitely by 2019.
Washington Spirit(5-4-15-19 points—Tied for Ninth)
U.S. international midfielder Mallory Pugh (still a teenager at 19 years of age) is back after scoring 6 goals and 1 assist in only 16 games; she left UCLA before her sophomore year. Nigerian international Francisca Ordega, who chipped in 4 goals and 3 assists, and American forward Cheyna Williams (ex-Vanderbilt and Florida State Universities), with 5 goals and 1 assist last season, both return.
Rose Lavelle, the number one college draft choice in the 2017 draft and a U.S. international, should be an impactful addition through Boston's dispersal draft. The Spirit had the number 1 pick in the 2018 draft and selected U.S. international Andi Sullivan (who won the College Cup and Hermann Trophy last year as the best division 1 college soccer player). Second year player Ashley Hatch, who won a W league title this winter with Melbourne City, contributed 2 goals in Australia and had 7 goals last season in North Carolina to finish joint eighth in the league scoring race and won the 2017 NWSL Rookie of the Year award.
Yanara Aedo of Chile has experience playing in Spain, with Valencia from 2016-17 and played for the Washington Spirit Reserves in the W-League prior to that, winning the championship in the USL league's last season.
Gabarra is definitely on the hot-seat after clearing out many from the side that lost the 2016 NWSL final on penalties; Crystal Dunn played in Chelsea last year rather than returning but came back to the league to play for the Courage this season. Gabarra has coached Washington-based teams in all 3 professional leagues, but failure to make the playoffs could cost him his job. Pugh is magnificent to watch and the team is loaded with young talent, but a proven goal scorer up front (perhaps an import) and some depth in defense is needed to push this side into the top four.
Note: The now defunct Boston finished tied for 9th with Washington with 4 wins, 7 ties and 13 losses for 19 points.
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.
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