This week we look at the first half of the NWSL season as the league took a national team break for UEFA and CAF World Cup Qualifiers and North American national team friendlies; most teams have played between 10-12 matches of their 24 game season. At this point, three of the four teams at the top are set to repeat as 2017 semifinalists—North Carolina, Orlando and Portland, with second place Seattle replacing Chicago. Chicago is tied for fourth on points with Portland but has played one more game (12 vs. 11 for the Thorns). The season is not over yet by any means and look for Chicago and surprising Houston to be in with a chance to make the playoffs in the second half of the season, while Utah has an outside shot if they put together a string of wins. We touch on the highlights for each of the nine NWSL sides.
2018 NWSL Season to Date
North Carolina Courage (9-3-0--30 points—First)
Truly this Courage side has been fantastic this season, starting off their first twelve games by dropping only 6 of a possible 36 points; they are an amazing 12 points ahead of second place Seattle. McCall Zerboni (31), who won three pro league titles in her professional career (which began with the Los Angeles Sol in WPS in 2009) in 2011 in WPS and 2012 in the WPSL and in 2016, all with the Western New York Flash, has been outstanding this season and is in the discussion for League Player of the Year. Zerboni made her national team debut at the age of 30 last year and with the quality of her form, could see more appearances for the nats, much as Seattle's Allie Long did before the 2015 World Cup. North Carolina leads the NWSL in scoring with 24, eight more than second place Orlando and Chicago with 16. The Courage also has the third lowest goals against total with 11. Crystal Dunn's return to the league from Chelsea has been remarkable, with 4 goals and 3 assists, tied for the team lead in goals and points with Jessica McDonald (also 4 goals and 3 assists) while midfielders Zerboni and Sam Mewis are tied for third with 3 goals. Their defensive line of New Zealand international Abby Erceg, and U.S. internationals Jaelene Hinkle and Abby Dahlkemper along with ex-Seattle Reign and FC Kansas City and U.S. youth international back Merritt Mathias has been nearly ever present. Mathias has been called into the U.S. National Team for the China series which began on June 7. Japanese international Yuri Kawamura recently returned after missing most of 2017 and the first few months of 2018 while recovering from an ACL tear. Their 4-1 defeat of Portland on the road on May 30, who defeated them in last season's NWSL final, sent a message to the rest of the league that the Courage will be very difficult to derail this summer. The side will get to prove their quality on the global stage this summer against Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain in a privately run International Champions Cup tournament in Florida, where Dunn will have the opportunity to play against her former English Super League side Chelsea.
Seattle Reign (5-3-2--18 points—Second)
New coach, new players—no problem. After two years missing the playoffs, the Reign is back in the playoff hunt under Vlatko Andonovski, whose FC Kansas City side twice defeated the Reign in NWSL finals in 2014 and 2015. The side still runs off the engines of U.S. international Megan Rapinoe and Jess Fishlock from Wales, but new additionsU.S. international Allie Long (from Portland) and English international Jodie Taylor have integrated well and quickly. American goalkeeper Michelle Betos, who played last year in Norway with Valerenga, has been excellent, playing twice as many games as Australian international Lydia Williams, who missed much of the first two months due to Asian Cup qualifying. That duo is as good as any in the league and it will be interesting to watch how Andonovski allocates the minutes to this tandem through the rest of the season. Rapinoe is second in the league in goals with 5, while Taylor has 3 and Long and American veteran Bev Yanez have 2. Short of major injuries, Andonovski has this side primed for the playoffs.
Orlando Pride (4-4-3--16 points—Third)
Orlando Pride's 5-2 victory over Chicago Red Stars on the road on May 26, blitzing the Red Stars for three goals within the last half hour, was a crucial win over a strong team which saw Australian international Sam Kerr score a brace in a losing cause. After Kerr had tied the game with her second goal, U.S. 2015 WWC title winner Sydney Leroux scored her own brace as a second half substitute. Earlier in the week, the Pride came back from a 3-1 deficit at home against league leading North Carolina to equalize, before Jess McDonald sent the Courage home with full points after an injury time goal in the 4-3 victory. After a 0-0 deadlock in Seattle on June 3, the Pride has not lost during their last 5 games. Orlando's offense is ticking over with Marta in fine form. The team has scored 16 goals, tied for Chicago for the second highest total in the league, while their 13 goals surrendered is fourth best. Ashlyn Harris in goal has been unusually shaky at times, though defender Sharina Zadorsky of Canada—who joined the side this season after two years in Washington—has played well in front of her. Ali Kreiger, the 2015 WWC winning defender who played in Germany with Frankfurt, is out for 4 weeks with a MCL injury. Christine Nairn has been very strong in midfield with 1 goal and 3 assists. Former Arsenal player Chioma Ubogagu leads the side with 4 goals, followed by Rachel Hill (3 goals), Brazilian Marta (2 goals and 3 assists), while Leroux and U.S. international forward Alex Morgan each have 2 goals and 1 assist. Hill, who played at the University of Connecticut, is in her second year and had a phenomenal offseason in Perth, scoring 9 goals.
Portland Thorns (4-3-4--15 points—Tied for Fourth)
There are some real positives with the Thorns: evergreen Canadian striker Christine Sinclair (34 years old and a veteran of four Women's World Cups) leads the league in goals with 6 (along with 3 assists) and points with 9; last year's Goalkeeper of the Year Adrianna Franch is out injured but Britt Eckerstrom (the backup for champions Western New York Flash in 2016 and league titlists Portland in 2017 but only played in 5 games before this season—she helped Newcastle Jets to the postseason this past winter in Australia for the first time in 9 seasons) has stepped in quite capably and played in 8 games and attendance is blistering as always as the Thorns have attracted 94,251 for 6 games, for an average of 15,709, compared to the league average of 5,950. They have scored 15 goals (fourth highest in the league) but have let in 16 goals (tied with Chicago and Sky Blue FC for the second highest total in the league). Swiss international forward Ana Crnogorcevic has 1 goal and 1 assist in 8 games—a disappointment for such a high profile import. Two crucial U.S. internationals have been productive: Lindsey Horan has 4 goals and 1 assist while Tobin Heath has 1 goal and 2 assists and looks to have recovered from her injury issues that cost her virtually all of last season. Defender Kat Reynolds scored the only goal in a 4-1 home loss to Orlando on May 30, but it was her first goal in the league and her 100th league game. One gets the feeling that the side is underperforming with some surprising losses, including at home to Orlando 2-1 on May 12 in front of 17,115, and a road tie to Houston 1-1 three days earlier. They need a little more diversity in scoring but this team is in a strong position as it heats up for the summer.
Chicago Red Stars (3-6-3--15 points—Tied for Fourth)
It is odd that Chicago is out of the playoff race so far this season after three consecutive playoff berths from 2015 to 2017, but they are adjusting to a new forward (Sam Kerr replacing Christen Press—in Sweden, who has 4 goals in 7 games for Kopparbergs/Gothenburg—tied for fourth place with three other teams on 10 points but already 11 points behind surprise leaders Pitea). Kerr has only played in 7 games due to AFC World Cup qualifying but already has 5 goals to tie Rapinoe for second in the league. U.S. and former Mexican international Sofia Huerta has been strong in attack with 3 goals and 2 assists while veteran American Alyssa Mautz—who has played with Zorky in Russia, Perth Glory and then last season with Adelaide United in Australia—has 3 goals and 2 assists and Yuki Nagasato has 1 goal and 2 assists and has been active and dangerous all season.
The Red Stars have scored 16 goals—tied with Orlando for second best in the league—but have also given up 16 and are tied with Portland and Sky Blue FC for third most in the league. Alyssa Naeher has made stellar saves at times while on other occasions she has given up some soft goals—a concern for the U.S. National Team with WWC Qualifying in October—but could present an opportunity for a younger keeper to step in (Eckerstrom or Franch of Portland, Abby Smith of Utah or Casey Murphy of Montpellier in France, who was drafted out of college by Sky Blue in January). Both Murphy and Smith are on the U.S. squad for the China series.
Utah Royals (3-5-2—14 Points—Tied for Sixth)
Utah has only two losses in nine games, but if they continue their rate of ties, they probably will miss the playoffs. Their defense (and particularly American goalkeeper Abby Smith) has been stellar, surrendering 7 goals in 9 games, and the team has surrendered 8 in 10 so far this season, the best in the league, while their 9 goals scored is just ahead of bottom side Sky Blue FC with 6.
Their two new players who had such strong winters in Australia: Katie Stengel (1 goal and 0 assists in Utah and 10 goals last winter for Newcastle Jets) and Norwegian international Elise Thorsnes (0 goals and 0 assists in Utah and 6 goals last winter with Canberra United) have both been substitutes, but they need to be more productive for this side in the last half of the season. Erika Tymrak (who has played for the Kansas City/Utah franchise for 6 seasons, with two league titles and played in Germany with Bayern Munich and won an A-League crown with Melbourne City in 2016-17 ) has been a sub, but has 1 goal and been active when she is on the field. Amy Rodriguez (1 goal and 1 assist) needs help to lead the forward line and power this side to the playoffs. If it doesn't come from Stengel and Thorsnes, head coach Laura Harvey may have to bring in some other scorers during the transfer window. Icelandic international midfielder Gunny Jonsdottir is a hit with Utah's strong fan base with 1 goal and 2 assists from midfield. Canadian midfielders Desiree Scott (ex-Notts County in England) and Diane Matheson have teamed with Jonsdottier to help to make the midfield a joy to watch, and Matheson (2 goals and 1 assist) has been magical at times with her perception vision for her passing. Off the field. the team is a success, averaging over 8,500 fans in their new home, in a MLS stadium seating 20,000, compared to 1,312 in 2017 and 3,162 in 2016 in their former miniature bandbox of a stadium in Kansas City.
Houston Dash (3-5-4--14 points—Tied for Sixth)
The Houston Dash is only one point out of a playoff spot after a wonderful May in which they won three times, tied three, with only one loss. Though tied with Utah on 14 points, Utah has played two fewer games. Rachel Daly, recently called into the English national side for the June WWC Qualifiers, has been brilliant; after being moved back to a forward from defender by Dutch head coach Vera Pauw, she was player of the week for week 9—May 23-May 27 (her second weekly honor of the season) as well as player of the month for May. She leads the side with four goals.
Young American international goalkeeper Jane Campbell has been shaky at times this season with 17 goals against, tied with Washington for the highest team total in the league. Now that Houston has their offense in action (13 goals is tied with Seattle for fifth best in the league) with 8 in their last 4 games, if they can go back to their defensive solidity from earlier in the season, they will be a handful in the playoff chase—well deserved for a franchise with a strong fan base, a nice soccer specific stadium and so much potential. Veronica Latsko, a rookie forward from the University of Virginia, has 2 goals and 1 assist, including an injury time winner against Seattle on May 23 and a 79th minute winner for a 3-2 away victory over Sky Blue FC on May 5. Canadian international Nichelle Prince (ex-Ohio State University) has been dangerous on the wing with 1 goal and 2 assists. American international forward Kealia Ohai, coming back from injury which caused her to miss much of last season and some early games, has two goals and 1 assist—a huge plus for the Dash for the rest of the season. Midfielder Kristie Mewis was lost for the season towards the end of May with a knee injury. Pauw could look within the league or abroad for some more midfield support.
Washington Spirit (2-3-7--9 points—Tied for Eighth)
Young American internationals Mallory Pugh (2 goals and 1 assist) and Ashley Hatch (3 goals and 1 assist) have been dynamic while Nigerian international Fran Ordega has contributed 3 goals as well. Their 17 goals against is tied with Houston for the worst defense in the league, while their 10 goals for (most coming from the three forwards mentioned above) place them for seventh best, ahead of Sky Blue FC (6 goals for) and Utah (9). U.S. international midfielder Rose Lavelle has started to play again after missing most of last season due to injury. Jim Gabarra's side is on pace to fall far short of last season's 19 points when they finished tied for last, but he could be jettisoned despite a penalty kick loss to Western New York in the 2016 final, after two subpar seasons and so much young American talent onthe field. In a 1-0 U.S. win over China on June 7, Mallory Pugh strained her PCL in her knee and will be out for 8 to 10 weeks, causing further concern for the Spirit coaching staff.
Sky Blue FC (0-2-8--2 points—Ninth)
Sky Blue FC is seven points behind eighth place Washington Spirit. The loss of Sam Kerr up front (to Chicago in January) was always going to be upsetting. U.S. international pool player Savannah McCaskill (2 goals) has played well as has Katie Johnson (the Mexican international from USC who played at Seattle Reign last season), with 2 goals and 2 assists. With only 6 goals as team, scoring less than one goal every game is simply not good enough in this league. Midfielder Carli Lloyd cannot be counted on for the level of team scoring at the level that Kerr did, as an attacking midfielder. Kailen Sheridan, a Canadian international goalkeeper and a rookie last year, is again the starter for the second consecutive year. On June 2, they put up a tough fight against Utah but still lost in New Jersey, their 9th straight winless game to open the season. On June 8, they tied Washington Spirit 0-0 at home to take the streak to 10 games, one off the record held by Seattle Reign in the first year of the league. Defender Rebekah Stott, a New Zealand international who was acquired from Seattle in the offseason and played with SC Sand in Germany in the past, has been a plus in defense. It's unfortunate that head coach Denise Reddy, in her first year, already needs to build for next year and hope her side can surpass last year's total of 19 points—at this point that seems like a dream but things can change quickly in this league and they have played fewer games to date than most sides.
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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