This week we look at the first approximately twenty-percent of the 2019 National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) season as most teams have played 5 of the 24 game regular season. We review the season so far team-by-team in the order of their current table standings.
After three games, the U.S. national team players left for Women's World Cup training and practice games, while the other internationals will be leaving soon.
Essentially, NWSL this year is focused on three phases—the first 3 games with the Americans, the next phase before and during the World Cup when fill-in players and a number of back-ups will shoulder the load, and then phase three or after the World Cup, which could see some new additions to the roster of some of the teams.
At this early point in the season, Utah, Houston and Washington would make the playoffs—who all three missed out last season—along with 2018 NWSL semifinalists Chicago Red Stars, with 2018 finalists North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns along with the other semifinalists last season—Reign FC (Tacoma/nee Seattle)—on the outside looking-in.
2019 NWSL Season Preview
Chicago Red Stars (3-2-1--11 points—First)
Chicago held the Courage to a 1-1 tie to open the season on April 13, with Sam Kerr scoring on an assist by Japanese international Yuki Nagasato. Nagasato scored twice in the 4-4 draw with Portland and then added a goal and an assist in the 3-0 home win on April 27 over Reign FC, before losing in Utah on May 1-0 after their U.S. internationals—goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, Julie Ertz, Morgan Brian and rookie Tierna Davidson—had left to join the national team. The big question is how the defense will hold up during the World Cup period with second year player and former University of California's Emily Boyd in goal, whose off to a great start with three games so far this season (only allowing three goals) and surpasses her two appearances all last season (with no goals allowed). Veteran American defenders Arin Wright (Gillibrand), Katie Naughton and U.S. national team pool players Casey Short and Danielle Colaprico—with Short a late omission from the France side while Colaprico was in the discussion for a U.S. World Cup spot until early this year—will help the team to continue to stabilize in the back.
Their 3-1 defeat of previously undefeated North Carolina on May 12 was a statement maker for the club, with Sam Kerr scoring twice and Michelle Vasconcellos—who was drafted from BYU for the 2017 season but took that season off to give birth to her daughter Scarlett and then had one goal in 19 games last season—scoring once; this was a special Mother's Day for Vasconcellos with the goal and the surprise win. Vasconcellos will be crucial this season as veteran American Alyssa Mautz is out for the season with an ACL injury suffered in practice earlier in May. Kerr again scored a brace on May 19 in a 2-1 away win against Houston—the six points gained in a week allowed them to leap the field and sit atop of the table, while the Australian international leads the league with 6 goals while Nagasato leads in assists with 3.
Washington Spirit (3-1-1--10 points—Tied for Second)
First year Spirit head coach Richie Burke had his club off to a much better start than last year, when the team finished 2018 with only 2 wins and 11 points. After five games, they have ten points, one fewer than last season. They didn't look like a playoff side during the first few games though they were a far sight better than last year—but have improved over the past few games and have snuck in under the radar. If they can keep winning games they are not expected to during the World Cup, they could maintain a playoff spot through the end of the season. Their opener on April 13 saw first NWSL goals ever from rookie Samantha Staab (ex-Clemson University) and Megan Crossan (who has played in the league since 2016 with Houston and then in Japan, Spain and Lithuania before signing for the Spirit last season as an international player replacement and only appearing in one game) for a 2-0 win over Sky Blue FC, followed by a gritty 1-0 loss in Utah and 0-0 tie on May 4 against Reign FC. The Spirit needs more scoring and their two U.S. national team losses—Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle—are significant for a team without a lot of depth, but if someone can step up in scoring—most likely 2017 Rookie of the Year Ashley Hatch—they should accumulate more points over the next two months until after the WWC in France. Hatch had one goal in a stunning 3-1 win at home over the Portland Thorns (and their former head coach Mark Parsons) on May 18 in front of 3,049 fans in suburban Maryland.
Of the new imports, the Sydney FC and Matilda defender Amy Harrison has looked good, playing about double the minutes of fellow-France bound Matilda Chloe Logarzo, while current Jamaican and former U.S. U-23 international forward Cheyna Matthews (who played at Vanderbilt and Florida State University, scored 8 goals in 40 games for the Spirit in 2016 and 2017 and took last year off for maternity leave) scored twice in a 3-2 Spirit road win over Sky Blue FC on May 11 in Round 5.
Utah Royals (3-1-1—10 Points—Tied for Second)
English native Laura Harvey's side has slid under the radar on the field as well, starting the season by scoring only three times, but coming away with 3 wins, over Washington, Orlando and Chicago, with goals from Lo'eau La Bonta (who played this winter with Western Sydney Wanderers in Australia), U.S. 2015 and 2019 Women's World Cup team member Christen Press and 2015 World Cup titlist Amy Rodriguez. Those three narrow victories had taken the Royals into first place in the table. Thirty-seven year old Nicole Barnhart, who won two Olympic Gold medals while playing primarily as a backup for the U.S. national team, has been exceptional in goal with three shutouts and three goals allowed in five games to help the Royals to the lead in team defense (fewest goals allowed) among the 9 teams.. Utah's defense was strong last season (surrendering only 23 goals in 24 games for third best in the league) and remains quite stout, but they have to get more players involved in scoring, as they only have 5 goals for in 5 games, tied for sixth best in the league. The fact that they have veteran internationals Gunnhildur (Gunni) Jonsdottir (Iceland) and Vero Boquette (Spain) not involved in World Cup preparation and matches will help them retain their early momentum during the FIFA tournament in France.
Off the field, the Royals couldn't have had a better start with 18,015 in their home opener on April 20 against the Spirit and then 16,556 on May 3 against Chicago—if these numbers continue, they will rival Portland for the NWSL attendance lead in 2019. They then attracted 10,138 on May 11 for a 2-1 loss at home to Houston Dash, when the Royals had 560 passes to Houston's 290 with 66% of the possession, but fell to two Rachel Daly goals. They came away with a crucial road point on May 19 in North Carolina in a 1-1 draw.
Houston Dash (3-1-2)—10 points—Tied for Second)
Nichelle Prince of Canada has been fantastic up front with her speed and scored the only goal in their1-0 home win on April 14 against Reign FC. The next week, the Dash had a 1-0 road win on April 12 at Sky Blue FC with a goal from Sofia Huerta, who nine months ago looked like she was going to make the American World Cup team as a defender but fell out of the reckoning late last year—though Sky Blue's American international Carli Lloyd banged a penalty kick off of the post mid-way through the first half that would ultimately have allowed Sky Blue to share the points A 4-1 home loss to North Carolina on April 28 was a lone hiccup for the Dash to open the season, but they bounced back nicely in Week 4 with a 1-0 home win over Orlando, with Kaelia Ohai scoring the only goal in the 7th minute. Jane Campbell in goal faced three penalty kicks in the first three Dash games and none went in, saving two of them and one from Carli Lloyd hitting the post; she should be among a number of young players to see more national team time after this summer. In round 5, in a road game at Utah, Rachel Daly—celebrating her inclusion on the English national team side for France—scored twice on identical right-sided angled shots past Royals goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart for a very important road win.
First year Dash coach and United Kingdom native James Clarkson has done quite well in his first job coaching women, though he has been with the parent Houston Dynamo (MLS) organisation for a decade. The Dash still need more consistent scoring from Huerta and Ohai during the World Cup phase, while English internationals Rachel Daly, Prince and Kyah Simon (Australian WWC alternate) after the World Cup are the most likely to lead the side in attack to more wins.
The Dash did receive a significant setback on May 10 when they announced that their second year forward Veronica Latsko will miss the remainder of the 2019 NWSL season with a left knee injury suffered during training that week. She had a breakout season in the W-League last winter, scoring 9 goals to drive Adelaide United to the cusp of their first ever playoff berth in 11 seasons. She finished tied for second in the W-League with Australian international Caitlin Foord of Sydney FC (Portland Thorns) and former English international and Boston Breaker Natasha Dowie of Melbourne Victory. TribalFootball.com talked to Latsko this winter while she was playing in Adelaide and this news was disheartening to learn; I think Latsko has potential to be a future U.S. national team forward and a consistent lead forward in the NWSL. We hope to see her return to action in both leagues soon.
North Carolina Courage (2-3-1--9 points—Fifth)
The Courage again started the season undefeated, though they tied their first game of the season at home 1-1 against Chicago and then again in their fourth game, a scoreless tie against Sky Blue FC. The U.S. Women's World Cup team players left for training after game three, with other internationals due to leave their clubs later on. Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis, Crystal Dunn (who has been on fire with 4 goals in 3 games and was named Player of the Month for April) and Jessica McDonald are France-bound with the Americans, but not midfielder McCall Zerboni or forward Lynn Williams, who currently has 3 goals and 2 assists. NWSL games from the first week in May through the end of the Women's World Cup in mid-July will be critical and Williams and Zerboni will help keep the momentum going for the Courage, who also have a chance to defend their International Champions Cup tournament title from last year in August against Lyon of France, Manchester City of England and Athletico Madrid of Spain, as well as their 2018 NWSL title this fall.
They lost their first game in 330 days months in Chicago on May 12, falling to Chicago 3-1, with Sam Kerr scoring a brace, despite the Courage holding the advantage in shots (16 vs. 9), possession (53% vs. 47%) and shots on goal (5 vs. 3)—but the Red Stars tallied on all three of their shots. It was the Courage's first lost since a June 2018 defeat to Utah Royals and the first loss by two goals since May 21, 2018, when they lost to the Red Stars. The Courage went 15 regular season games without a loss, just one short of Reign FC's record of 16 in 2014, when they played in Seattle.
Canadian international goalkeeper Steph Labbe came back from a short stint las season with Linkoping of Sweden, after time in the WPSL in Calgary, and started in 4 games, had 2 shutouts and overall has done well—relegating U.S. U-20 and U-23 international Katelyn Rowland—who has won three league titles with North Carolina, Western New York and FC Kansas City—to only one game before she left to join the Canadians for a friendly versus Mexico in Toronto, where Labbe had another shutout in a 3-0 win. Swedish international midfielder Julie Spetsmark has one goal in four games in a reserve capacity in her first year in the NWSL.
Portland Thorns (2-2-1—8 points—Sixth)
Portland Thorns, the road warriors who started the season with 7 consecutive road games while their home stadium is undergoing renovations to add 3,000 more seats for a capacity of around 25,000, was still undefeated after four games but lost a surprisingly 3-1 game away to the Washington Spirit on May 18, though the Spirit is much improved this season. The 2019 NWSL runners-up opened with a 2-0 win to open the season at Orlando, followed by two high scoring draws, at Chicago (4-4—with Canadian international forward Christine Sinclair scoring a hat trick) and 2-2 at Sky Blue F.C.
They were led early in the season by WWC-bound players Sinclair, American Tobin Heath and Australian Caitlyn Foord, with the latter having been so strong in the W-League this winter while winning a title with FC Sydney and with the Matildas in friendlies. Foord is tied for the club league in scoring with Sinclair with 3 goals and 1 assist, and scored the only goal in their first loss of the season against the Spirit.
Reign FC (1-3-1--6 points—Seventh)
A repeat of a semifinal spot looks distant at this point for Reign FC (Tacoma after moving from Seattle in the off-season) with only 4 goals in 5 games (with English international Jodie Taylor soon leaving the team for France) but their defense is strong with Michelle Betos getting the nod over Australian international Lydia Williams most of the time this season.
The Reign had a good start off the field in their new home of Cheney Stadium in Tacoma Washington with a crowd of 5,323 on Easter Sunday, though the club drew 1-1 against bottom side Orlando, who scored their first goal of the season through a tremendous bicycle kick by Australian international defender Alanna Kennedy. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski is a tremendous tactician and leader with two NWSL titles on his resume and he will figure things out, but it is vital that the Reign not fall too far out of the playoff reckoning when the internationals return.
This internationally-loaded team has U.S. international Megan Rapinoe, Jess Fishlock of Wales, Rumi Utsugi of Japan, Theresa Nielsen of Denmark, Jodie Taylor of England and Celia Jimenez Delgado of Spain on the roster, who all—except Fishlock and Nielsen, both with teams that narrowly missed qualifying—are expected to be at the Women's World Cup in France along with the three Australians. We expect to see some new players coming in, especially after the World Cup—likely from abroad.
A strong recent addition was the signing this past week of American goalkeeper Casey Murphy, who played for two seasons in France with Montpellier. Murphy started all 22 matches for Montpellier this season, guiding the club to a third place finish while allowing 27 goals. Murphy also made two starts for Montpellier in the 2017-18 UEFA Women's Champions League quarterfinals against Chelsea. In 2018, Murphy was selected as the French Division 1 keeper of the year by the French Football Federation.
Reign FC head coach Vlatko Andonovski said: "We're thrilled to add Casey to the club. Any time you can add a player of her caliber, it's a good day. We know that she'll be able to help us this season." Murphy said: "Playing in France for the past two seasons was a tremendous learning experience both personally and professionally. The next step in achieving my goals was to come home and play in the NWSL. I am very thankful to Montpellier HSC, Reign FC and my agent for working together to make this possible. I am excited to join such a talented team and look forward to working hard and contributing towards their goal of winning championships."
Murphy began playing with the U.S. WNT as a U-14. The keeper played six matches for the United States at the 2016 U-20 Women's World Cup in Papua New Guinea, helping the team to a fourth-place finish. Murphy has been called into camp with the senior national team but has not yet been capped. Prior to going pro, Murphy played for Rutgers University. The Bridgewater, New Jersey native kept 45 clean sheets in her career, a program record and the second-best all-time ledger in Big Ten history. Murphy was named a Mac Hermann Trophy semifinalist in 2017 and was a two time All-Big Ten First Team and All Region selection. She was the 13th draft choice of Sky Blue FC—yet became another refugee who wanted to play elsewhere. She had actually signed for Montpellier before Sky Blue selected her—another puzzling decision by the league's problem team that actually plays at Rutgers University.
The Reign also recently signed Ifeoma Onumonu as a supplement, with so many national team players gone for the Women's World Cup. Onumonu has played two seasons in the NWSL, in 2017 with Boston Breakers in 18 games and then in 8 games last season for the Portland Thorns. Onumonu played with the U.S. U-23 national team in 2017 and collegiately for the University of California Golden Bears, earning the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year award in 2012. The forward scored 33 goals in 82 career games.
Sky Blue FC (0-2-4--2 points—Eighth Place)
Sky Blue FC again is near the bottom of the league table but the team has looked much stronger than last season. Two first half goals by Carli Lloyd at home on April 28 gave Sky Blue an excellent start against Portland but the Central New Jersey side ended up surrendering their lead for a 2-2 tie and a share of the points; they did attack evenly with Portland in the second half. Unfortunately, the gates are not improved over last season as 1,321 attended the Portland game, down from 1,394 in their home opener a week earlier when they lost to Houston 1-0. Kaelyn Sheridan of Canada has been superb and should be considered as a starter for Canada in France based on her form. Sheridan was named the goalkeeper for April's NWSL Team of the Month. Sky Blue went on the road May 4 in Week 4 and came away with a scoreless deadlock over powerhouse North Carolina, who took 28 shots on goal.
Sky Blue received a big boost on May 7 when they announced that they had signed Gina Lewandowski (34). The former Lehigh University defender played for years in Germany with Bayern Munich and Frankfurt and made one appearance with the U.S. national team in 2015. Reddy said: "Gina has been playing in one of the best leagues in the world. She will bring home experience from playing in the Frauen-Bundesliga for the past 12 years. She is an exceptional defender with an attacking mindset that will bring even more experience to our backline."
Lewandowski said: "I am really excited to be coming back to the U.S. and to have the opportunity to play closer to home. The league has developed immensely the last few years and I am looking forward to playing professionally in the U.S. again and being a part of its continued growth. Sky Blue FC has a vision for the future, and I am excited to join the club and their push for women's soccer."
Lewandowski joined Bayern Munich in 2012 and has made a total of 114 appearances and scored 18 goals in seven seasons. During her time there, she won the German League title in 2015 and 2016. Prior to Bayern Munich, Lewandowski began her professional career with FFC Frankfurt (2007-2012) and had a brief stint with the WPS Champions Western New York Flash in 2011. In her time with FFC Frankfurt, she was a part of the squad that won the treble (German League title, the DFB Cup, and the UEFA Women's Cup) in 2007/2008 season. She also won the DFB Cup in 2011. Overall Lewandowski has 179 Bundesliga appearances, 35 Cup games, 10 UEFA Cup games, and 18 Champions League games.
Despite having only one cap, Lewandowski has long been seen as one of the stellar American imports abroad, being a key player for two top German teams. It is good to have her back in a professional league in the States and sends a message that she has faith in Sky Blue FC and head coach Denise Reddy, which is just what the franchise needs as to most American players, the franchise has had the appeal of Pripyat, Ukraine just after the Chernobyl melt-down.
Orlando Pride (0-1-5--1 point—Ninth)
New coach and former Birmingham City manager Marc Skinner has gotten off to a nightmarishly slow start in Orlando—losing 2-0 against Portland at home in front of 7,189 and then being blasted by North Carolina 5-0 on the road on April 17 midweek. Scoring has been a problem and the Pride had only one goal in three games and two in five, and the surprise is that didn't come from Alex Morgan or Marta or Rachel Hill but Australian international Allana Kennedy against Seattle on a stunning overhead kick in the box for their only point in a 1-1 tie for Reign FC's home opener and the other from American youth international and NWSL veteran (since 2013) defender Toni Pressley in a 3-1 home loss to Portland on May 12. This team looks thin in terms of depth for the WWC period. Skinner should be given at least two years in charge but this team is too talented to have 2 goals and 13 goals against in 6 games. Marta again looks jaded and may have to be sent on after the season while Skinner guts the team.
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