This week we look at the NWSL at the midway point of the 2016 season; featuring last week's Player of the Week Sophia Huerta, which emphasizes that - despite attracting players from Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania and South America - young local players are blossoming and are a key reason why the U.S. Soccer Federation launched the league after the 2012 Olympics.
We also present some interesting story lines to watch ahead of the second half of the season as teams jostle for one of the four playoff slots.
Huerta Wins Week 9 Player of the Week Award
Forward Sophia Huerta of the Chicago Red Stars was named NWSL Player of the Week by the media for Week 9 (June 17-June 19) after scoring a brace in a June 18 3-0 home victory over the Boston Breakers. Huerta grew up in Boise, Idaho and played collegiately at Santa Clara in Northern California. She had played for Mexico at the U-20 World Cup and in a few full friendlies, but is still available to play for U.S. at the national team level, as she has not yet played in an official tournament. Huerta was selected in the 2015 NWSL draft by Chicago Red Stars, whose coach Rory Dames has been one of the most astute in drafting young talent like Julie Johnston, Vanessa DiBernardo and Danielle Colaprico, while also stocking their reserve team—which won the WPSL championship last summer--with prospects for the senior side.
Heurta won attention last year when she scored 6 goals and 3 assists in 21 matches, helping Chicago maintain momentum for the playoffs for the first time while Christen Press and Julie Johnston were away at the World Cup in Canada. This season, Huerta has 3 goals and has started every match. The Red Stars are 5-3-3 on 18 points, despite falling to league leading Portland 2-0 on the road on June 22 and at Western New York on July 1 (2-0), with just over half of their regular season games (20 total) completed. As the Olympic break looms, Chicago is well placed for its second consecutive playoff berth. Huerta said that the team has been: “working on some things, such as keeping possession in the defensive third of the field. Our midfield is so technical and in the first quarter [of the season] we were playing long balls and not building out of the back. Now we are keeping teams on one side [of the field]—Rory Dames always stresses defensive play—and now working on quality finishing, using different patterns up front."
The Red Stars made a major operational change in the offseason, which should impact their crowds and, as Huerta mentioned, is helpful to the team on the field. The Red Stars moved away from their traditional home in the western suburbs of Chicago at Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois to soccer-specific Toyota Park, in near southern suburb Bridgeview. Huerta said that playing at Toyota Park (home of the MLSChicago Fire): “makes you feel like a professional. It is a soccer stadium [with a grass field]. It is a different energy and a lot easier on our bodies." Huerta explained that Benedictine University's stadium had an artificial field that was uneven and included lacrosse, football and soccer lines that were distracting to play on. Huerta said that “We never had a home field advantage there." Even though she played on artificial turf at Santa Clara, she realized how hard it was on her body once they moved to Toyota Park and the players' recovery is faster on grass than on turf. The Fire's stadium seats 20,000 compared to Benedictine's cozy 3,000. This was a good move for the team and the league, which now has four of their ten teams playing in MLS stadiums (The Red Stars are still independent in their ownership, while the other three are owned by MLS franchises). This move should help the team attract more fans from throughout Chicagoland. There has already been a 13% increase in attendance in 2016 after
5 games--2,948 in 2016 versus 2,557 for 8 games at Benedictine in 2015 (2 games in 2015 were played at Toyota Park--one a MLS doubleheader--which averaged 10,270 for a total 2015 season average of 4,100). Expect crowds to increase throughout the league after the Olympics, particularly if the Americans do well.
The Chicago Red Stars belief in developing young American talent like Sofia Huerta, and the move to Toyota Park to provide a larger, more professional venue for the game, shows that the NWSL continues to improve year over year and is growing through strong planning and vision.
Mid-Season Look at NWSL Team Prospects
Viva La France
Amandine Henry has settled in nicely at Portland Thorns but a second French player has joined the league, with Boston Breakers signing 21-year-old Ghoutia Karchouni - a French U-17 and U-19 international from Paris St. Germain, including playing in the U-17 Women's World Cup in Azerbaijan. It is a good sign that both senior stars and young prospects from France—the next Women's World Cup host in 2019—are coming west to play in the vibrant NWSL.
Portland Thorns and Boston Breakers are at opposite ends of the standings as most NWSL teams have played at least half of the 20 game regular season. Thorns are undefeated after 12 games, led superbly by former Chelsea assistant coach Mark Parsons. The side is on track to win their second league crown in 4 seasons. Henry has played four games since coming from Lyon (all wins) but will now leave to join France in the Rio Olympic team. Nadia Nadim scored one goal from the penalty spot and assisted on Icelandic international Dagny Brynjarsdottir's tally against Sky Blue FC in a 2-1 home win on July 2. Both Brynjarsdottir and Nadim have four goals on the season but for Nadim, it was an emotional game since it was the first time that she faced her former team. The Danish international played the previous two seasons with Sky Blue, notching 13 goals and 4 assists in 24 matches. Nadim said after the match: “I was emotional. Obviously I was really excited to see a lot of the girls. They're still my friends and I really care about them, but I wanted to win really, really badly. With the winning goal, I was really emotional at that point. It's awesome that we won….Playing in front of our fans (14,287) makes us want to win."
At the other end of the table, Matt Beard joined the Breakers after leading Liverpool to two Super League titles in England the past three seasons, but rebuilding a culture that has massively underachieved for years will take some time. The Breakers were the launching pad of Pia Sundhage in the last year of the WUSA (who has led the U.S. and Swedish national teams since then) when she guided the side to the league semifinals. Beard is the right person for the job, but will need more quality imports and North American internationals, and quickly has to establish an atmosphere that is attractive to top players. Right now the team seems to defeat itself before the game even starts and is not seen as a “prized destination location" around the league.
The Flash (soccer, not the movie) is back
The Western New York Flash won three titles in 3 different leagues from 2010-2012 but missed the playoffs the last two seasons. Former Portland Thorns and U.K. ex-pat coach Paul Riley has revived the side in 2016. They won 7-1 against Boston on June 24 and recently signed English 2015 WWC team member Lianne Sanderson from Orlando, where she had 2 goals and 1 assist in 8 games—3 of which she started. Lynn Williams, who played at Pepperdine and had 4 goals and 4 assists as a rookie in 2015, leads the league in goals this season with 6 (with 1 assist) while Flash teammate Jess McDonald, who played in Seattle and Portland in NWSL and with the North Carolina Tarheels in college, is second with 5 goals (and 4 assists). Despite despite losing Canadian international goalkeeper Sabrina D'Angelo to injury, rookie Britt Eckerstrom (ex-Penn State and U.S. Youth international) has surrendered less than 1 goal a game (0.67) and Katelyn Rowland has joined from FC Kansas City and has compiled a 0.50 GAA in two matches. The Flash won their fifth game in six matches when they defeated Chicago 2-0 at home on July 1, before a crowd of 3,114 in a game that started over an hour late because of stormy weather. Sanderson scored the first goal in her first match with her new club, with Lynn Williams scoring the clinching goal. Western New York took sole position of second place with the win. If the season ended now, Portland and Western New York would be in the playoffs, after missing in 2015 (Portland) and 2015/2014 (WNY), replacing Seattle and FC Kansas City—last season's finalist.
Race for the Playoffs Outside the Top Four
Seattle Reign has struggled to start this season but is only two points out of the playoffs and has the caliber of players to make a stretch run. Their defense is solid with four consecutive shutouts, but three were ties and only one win over Houston on June 12 (1-0).
Orlando Pride has done well with Alex Morgan (2 goals and 2 assists) their leading scorer. U.S. World Cup winner Ashlyn Harris has been phenomenal in goal (0.90 GAA) but to make the final four, Tom Sermanni's side needs to score more than 10 goals in 10 matches, less than half of the Flash's league-leading 22 goals. Orlando's average home attendance is 10,694, a phenomenal total for an expansion team and second only to Portland Thorns (16,246). Both team's links with their MLS parent clubs (Orlando City and the 2015 MLS Champions Portland Timbers respectively) has helped to build a strong fan base that should last.
Houston Dash—the third MLS aligned team with the Houston Dynamo—is third in average attendance with 5,846 a game, but at this point the Dash appear likely to miss the playoffs for the third straight year. Carli Lloyd has played in only two games due to injuries but one wonders how long they will persevere with Coach Randy Waldrum, who has been mentioned for the open Mexican national team job and combined both roles in 2014/15 with Trinidad and Tobago's ultimately unsuccessful quest to make the 2015 World Cup. New players for 2016 including, Australian international goalkeeper Lydia Williams (1.11 GAA), English youth international Rachel Daly (1 goal 3 assists), Canadian international forward Janine Beckie (1 goal) and former Arsenal forward Chioma Ubogagu (1 goal and 1 assist), have all played well, but 6 goals in 9 games will not help them climb the table from ninth place. They have lost 5 straight 1-0 games.
Sky Blue FC has some young talent in Sarah Killion, Australian international Sam Kerr and Costa Rican international Raquel Rodriguez, the second overall draft pick in the 2016 NWSL draft from Penn State. Taylor Lytle in midfield (Texas Tech) has done well with four assists, but the side needs to increase goal production (12 goals in 11 games) to move up from seventh place and make up the 5 standings point gap with fourth place Chicago.
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