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The Week In Women's Football: North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns dominate the early rounds of NWSL Season Five

This week we look at the NWSL after the first three rounds of matches for the 2017 season, analysing the early positives as well as the teams that need to improve on their first few performances.

NWSL Season Five Preview—Part 2

Currently In Playoff Positions

Last season Portland, Washington, Chicago and Western New York (now North Carolina) made the playoffs. Though it's early in the season, as of April 30, there are two repeat clubs from 2016 that are in playoff positions: North Carolina (undefeated in their three games with 9 points) and Portland Thorns (2-0-1 with six points). The Courage, with their twin forwards Jess McDonald and Lynn Williams—who combined for 21 goals last season—each scored their first goals of the season in their 3-1 home win over Orlando Pride on April 29. McDonald is now tied with Scottish international and former Seattle Reign midfielder Kim Little (now at Arsenal) for the all-time NWSL goal scoring lead with 31. McDonald has been with 6 different teams (five franchises counting Western New York/North Carolina as one) in her five years in the league. Brazilian international Debinha—a new arrival this season who has played at Avaldsnes in Norway, where she led the league in scoring in 2014, won a Copa Libertadores Femenina with Sao Jose in Brazil that winter and has recently been with Dalian Quanjian in China—scored the winner in their 1-0 home win over the Thorns on April 22 and looks to be an excellent addition to an already powerful offensive side.

Portland is second with 6 points, averaging 15,380 fans in their two home games, both shutout wins over Orlando on April 15 (2-0) and the Chicago Red Stars (1-0) on April 29. Danish international and current medical school student Nadia Nadim leads the team with two goals, both from penalties. Their only loss was to the Courage in North Carolina's home debut before 6,298 on April 22. They only have 3 goals in 3 games and when U.S. international Tobin Heath returns to the midfield from injury, we should see more production up front from Canadian international forward Christine Sinclair, Australian international Haley Raso and Nadim.

Two sides who would be making the playoffs for the first time in NWSL in 2017 are Houston Dash and Boston Breakers, both on 6 points with 2 wins and 1 loss. Houston defeated Chicago 2-0 at home in their opener but then crashed on the road in Seattle 5-1. They bounced back in suburban Washington D.C .and defeated the Spirit 1-0. Kealia Ohai—who was joint top scorer in the league last season with Lynn Williams with 11 goals—has played well, with two game winning goals while English international Rachel Daley had a strong match against the Spirit. The jury is still out on this import-loaded side (with Brazilians and Canadians and one each from England, the Republic of Ireland, South Africa and Australia).

The Boston Breakers are the other surprise, with 12 new additions—many of whom are rookies. The Beantowners have won two in a row after an opening season loss on the road on April 16 to FC Kansas City (2-0). They overcame Sky Blue FC 1-0 at home on April 23 and this past weekend, posted the shock of the season so far, defeating Seattle Reign (3-0) on April 29. Canadian international Adriana Leon had a goal and two assists; she was with Western New York last season but left before the playoffs with head coach's Paul Riley's permission to join Zurich in the Swiss League. Former Liverpool head coach Matt Beard brought her back to NWSL and she could very well have a breakout season. This club was expected to struggle early as it found its feet with all of the turnover, but the strong early start and particularly the Seattle win will give them more confidence; we could see them still among the top four at the end of the season.

Watch out for The Reign

Just outside of the playoff spots is Seattle Reign 4 points (1-1-1). The Reign is loaded with internationals (Australia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales) and former Arsenal Ladies manager Laura Harvey should have a side capable of making the playoffs again, after finishing runners-up in 2014 and 2015, completing the transition past the departure of Kim Little (Arsenal). Scottish international Rachel Corsie is still a strong presence in the back for Seattle, in front of American Haley Kopmeyer (ex-University of Michigan, Apollon of Cyprus and Brisbane Roar), with Hope Solo now in the wind and without a club at the present time.

Improvement Needed

Though Sky Blue FC is tied with the Reign with 4 points (1-1-1), they still seem to be a little light, particularly up front, where Australian international Sam Kerr should not be expected to shoulder all of the scoring burden. Raquel Rodriguez of Costa Rica scored a late goal to give Sky Blue FC their first win of the season in their home opener over FC Kansas City on April 30 (1-0). New midfielder Daphne Corboz—who played the last two years with Manchester City and is a dual French/U.S. national through her parents—is a quality signing and played well against Kansas City. Expect that Irish native Christy Holly to bring in another quality forward at some point during the season. Speaking of Manchester City, one wonders how long Sky Blue FC (playing in Central New Jersey and 30-60 minutes by car from Manhattan—depending on the traffic—and averaging a league low gate of 2,162 per game in 2016) will survive or if New York F.C. of MLS (part of the City group) will decide to enter the league, much as they have down so successfully with Melbourne City in Australia, the two-time Westfield W-League champion. If they did so, they would probably play in New York City or Long Island and not in Central New Jersey.

Chicago Red Stars (3 pts) have looked sluggish in 2 losses, to Portland on April 29 and Houston (2-0) in the season opener on April 15. This team could use an import for the forward line and midfield (they have none this season), and though they generally have had more ball position than their direct style of past years, they seem to be a side that other teams have figured out how to defend. U.S. international forward Christen Press needs to score 8-10 goals for the team to have any hope of a third consecutive playoff berth.

FC Kansas City (3 pts) won their opening game over Boston at home but lost on the road to Chicago and Sky Blue FC, both by 1-0 score lines. The Blues are still reeling from losing American international forward Amy Rodriguez to an ACL, after scoring in her first game since 2015, having missed the 2016 season while on maternity leave. The defense is the pillar of this squad and head coach Vlatko Andonovski should be able to adjust his roster to compensate, particularly with 2015 Women's World Cup winner Sydney Leroux back, also from maternity leave.

Washington Spirit (1 point) head coach Jim Gabarra badly needs to see a string of wins.

Despite narrowly losing the Final last season on penalty kicks--but he cleared out a number of players during the off-season and he won't win any "Most Popular" awards among league players. The Spirit did pepper Houston's goal in the second half of their recent 1-0 defeat but couldn't score. If they continue to be mired in the bottom half of the table by June, look for either changes in either playing staff or the management.

Orlando Pride (1 point) saw Brazilian international Marta played 90 minutes against the Courage in their loss last Saturday but only 30 minutes in their 1-1 tie versus Washington in April 22. Orlando is in their second season but the acquisition of Marta and hosting the final this season has seen expectations ratcheted up. Marta won a WPS title in 2011 with Alex Morgan in Rochester (Western New York Flash) and the prospect of Morgan returning after the Champions League Final from her loan spell with Lyon should bolster spirits as the season progresses.

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

Tim Grainey
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Tim Grainey

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