This week we review the 10 teams in the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) fourth season. We look at the teams in the order that they finished the 2015 regular season.
Seattle Reign FC (13-4-3—43 points W-D-L—First Place)
Seattle has lost Megan Rapinoe to an ACL injury training ahead of a national team match in Hawaii late last year (which was ultimately cancelled) and the talented winger could be lost for the majority of the season, but Scottish international and former Arsenal star forward Kim Little and Wales international midfielder Jess Fishlock are back and a tough tandem for opposing teams to defend. Fresh off a Westfield W-League title a few months back with Melbourne City in Australia, the duo will be eager to make their third NWSL Final in a row and capture the title for the first time. Former Arsenal head coach Laura Harvey brought in Dutch international World Cup forward Manon Melis and still has U.S. international goalkeeper Hope Solo in goal, Beverly Yanez (who played with INEX Kobe in Japan) at forward and international midfielder Keelin Winters as a defensive midfielder. Melis (who had a long career in Sweden) could be one of the break-out stars of the season.
Chicago Red Stars (8-9-3—33 points for 2nd Place)
In 2015, Chicago made their first playoff spot in professional leagues in three seasons in NWSL and two previous years in WPS. The surprising loss to eventual champion FC Kansas City in the semifinal notwithstanding, this is a franchise on the up-tick led by American head coach Rory Daines and talented American World Cup winners Christen Press at forward and Julie Johnston in defense. Midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo had a hugely impactful offseason with Perth Glory, scoring six times after joining the Australian side in midseason, while Amanda Da Costa (formerly with Liverpool and Washington Spirit and now a Portuguese full international) was an astute off-season acquisition for the midfield.
FC Kansas City (9-5-6—32 points for 3rd Place)
The two-time reigning NWSL Champions will not have forwards Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux for the season--both are out on maternity leave. Canadian international midfielder Desiree Scott's return from Notts County is an impactful move. Otherwise, the Blues will have to depend on goals from U.S. international Heather O'Reilly—whose acquisition by FCKC ahead of the 2015 season was noted as key reason for their second consecutive title by Macedonian-born head coach Vlatko Andonovski--along with ex-Bayern Munich striker Erika Tymrak and New Zealand international and college draft pick Katie Bowen from the University of North Carolina. The key determinant to this team's success in 2016 is how they overcome losing World Cup winning midfielder Lauren Holiday to retirement. No worries on the defensive side as their backline is always superb, led by experienced U.S. internationals Nicole Barnhart in goal and defender Becky Sauerbrunn. Brittany Taylor, who has a couple of U.S. national team caps, is an outstanding acquisition in the back from Western New York Flash, where she played all three years, after two years with Sky Blue FC in WPS.
Washington Spirit (8-6-6 for 30 points and fourth place)
The Spirit made the playoffs the last two seasons but Head Coach Mark Parsons is now in Portland and replaced by former Sky Blue FC coach Jim Gabarra. Gabarra won a WUSA title with Washington Freedom in 2003 after losing in the 2002 final with Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach on those sides, and has a long history with Washington area women's football. Goals could come again from NWLS 2015 Player of year Crystal Dunn and Laura Del Rio (Spanish international and ex Bristol Academy for 2 seasons and 1FFC Frankfurt for 1 year), while Canadian international midfielder Diane Matheson and U.S. World Cup winner Ali Krieger in defense are solid cores. Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe and Canadian defender Shelina Zadorsky (who played with Perth Glory and Vittsjo of Sweden in the past) are solid signings, but this team may be lacking a spark from previous seasons, unless Gabarra brings in some mid-season acquisitions.
Houston Dash (6-6-8 for 24 points and 5th)
A late season swoon kept Houston out of the playoffs but a team with U.S. World Cup winners Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian along with Rebecca Moros (ex-Portland Thorns and INEX Kobe of Japan), Denise O'Sullivan (Republic of Ireland international), Ellie Brush of Australia and new goalkeeper Lydia Williams of Australia's Matildas, may push this squad into the postseason in their third season. English international pool forward Rachel Daly was their first round draft choice in 2016 and could be a revelation, but the better she does, the more interest she will attract from Super League sides, as she told Our Game Magazine: “It's everyone's dream to play at home. But to play professionally in America: that's where it was. The home of women's soccer. But now it's taking off lots of places. They're catching up. Pushing ahead. The Swedish league, French league, German league, of course. They're all phenomenal… Generally speaking, from my freshman year, I was always wanting to play professionally here in the NWSL. But the way the league's taken off in England, it may have changed things, I'm not entirely sure. So when the time is right, the offer is right, I will decide then." The Dash should find extra motivation for the season by the recent announcement that they will host the league final in October.
Portland Thorns (6-5-9 for 23 points and tied for sixth)
Portland Thorns brought in former Chelsea assistant coach Mark Parsons from Washington to replace Paul Riley and expectations are high for this franchise that averages over 15,000 fans for every game. Not making the playoffs again will not do for this fan base or the MLS League Champions Timbers ownership group. U.S. international Lindsey Horan came from PSG while Icelandic international Dagny Brynjarsdottir arrived from Iceland (she previously was with Bayern Munich for a short time and before that played in America for Florida State University) and Danish international forward Nadia Nadim, who spent two years with Sky Blue. French international midfielder Amadine Henry will arrive this summer to mix with returnees such as Canadian international forward Christine Sinclair, U.S. World Cup winning midfielder Tobin Heath and defender Megan Klingenberg.
Western New York Flash (6-5-9 for 23 points and tied for sixth)
Paul Riley has joined from Portland to try to spark this team, that won three consecutive titles in 3 years in previous leagues but has been outside of the playoff picture the past two years. Rookie Americans Britt Eckerstrom in goal and Jaelene Hinkle in defense should make an immediate impact while Samantha Mewis in midfield is solid. New imports Jen Ga Eul of South Korea and midfielder Alana Kennedy of Australia should add class while Jessica McDonald and Lady Andrade of Colombia need to share the scoring load and be proficient up top. This could still be a tough year for the Flash but Riley is a master team builder.
Sky Blue FC (5-7-8 for 22 points and 8th place)
Irish native and former assistant coach Christy Holly takes charge after his former boss Jim Gabarra joined the Washington Spirit. Skeptics abound for this team's hopes in 2016 but Australian goal poacher Sam Kerr and midfielder Sarah Killion (who played so well in the off season in Australia with Adelaide United) are a solid core. U.S. international Kelley O'Hara and Christie Rampone anchor the defense but Caitlin Foord's injury absence from playing at home in the W-League in Australia is a blow. Sky Blue needs a few international level acquisitions to really push for the top, but an opening game road victory over Seattle Reign 2-1 was a good sign.
Boston Breakers (4-3-13 or 15 points and 9th place)
Matt Beard was brought in from Liverpool to try to resuscitate a franchise that had lost the plot and not made the postseason in three NWSL campaigns. American goalkeeper Libby Stout joins Beard from England and Swedish international midfielder Louise
Schillgard comes from Sweden's second division and retirement—she played for Beard in England in 2013. Kyah Simon of Australia is always dangerous and American Kristie Mewis is a game changer. U.S. World Cup winner Whitney Engen and experienced league veterans McCall Zerboni and Sinead Farrelly from Portland were astute acquisitions. Look for more internationals to come but the Breakers will be much more competitive in 2016 than in previous years.
Orlando Pride (Expansion Side)
The side draws a league record for its home opener, has World Cup winner Alex Morgan up top, Ashlyn Harris in goal and former U.S. and Australian international Tom Sermanni as coach. Definitely not the look of a typical expansion side and they will want to do what expansion side Melbourne City did in Australia, winning the regular season and league title. Australian international winger Steph Catley may be arguably the best left winger in the world and along with Canadian international midfielder Kaylyn Kyle, Cami Levin (ex-Gothenburg and Stanford), Laura Alleway of Australia and Lianne Sanderson, who won a bronze medal with England in Canada in last summer's World Cup after years of being shunned, are all ready to start strong before a strong fan-base.
First Matches Summary
After the first two games of the NWSL season, only two sides are unbeaten—Washington with wins over Boston (1-0) and Sky Blue FC (2-1 away)--while Portland beat Orlando at home 2-1 in front of 16,073 and drew away with champions FC Kansas City 1-1. Former PSG star Lindsey Horan has scored in both games, with Dagny Brynjarsdottir scoring the other goal. Seattle fell surprisingly at home to Sky Blue FC 2-1 before Boston in Beantown 3-0.
English youth international Rachel Daly was Player of the Week in Week 1 after scoring a goal and an assist in the Dash's 3-1 win over Chicago. In their second game, the Dash fell by the same score to Orlando Pride, with superb goalkeeping by U.S. international Ashlyn Harris and set an NWSL single game attendance record with 23,403. Only FC Kansas City (1 point) and Boston (0 points) are winless after 2 games—parity is evident even this early in the season.
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