Three of the four playoff teams this season in the nine team National Women's Soccer League were repeats from last season - champions FC Kansas City, two time regular season champions Seattle Reign and the Washington Spirit - with Chicago Red Stars making the post season for the first time in league history. Seattle Reign will meet FC Kansas City in the final after last weekend's semis.
We review each team's season ahead of the final in Portland.
Former Arsenal coach Laura Harvey - the only coach the Reign has had - took a poor 2013 side that finished seventh out of eight teams to the league final in 2014, where they were upset by FC Kansas City 2-1. The Reign did not let-up in 2015 and Seattle certainly has the talent to win the crown.
Scottish international newcomer Rachel Corsie slotted into an already strong defense. Kim Little, the 2014 League Most Valuable Player, was second in the league in scoring with 10 goals and first in assists with 7. Welsh international midfielder Jess Fishlock contributed 8 goals. Even though repeating as regular season champions this season, they won't host the final, as Portland will host the final on October 1 as the league has changed to pre-selecting a host city, to give it more time to stage ancillary events.
This year has been significant for the Reign as after the Women's World Cup, they have attracted solid crowds (5,465) to pull their season average above 4,000 for third in the league. A title would help cement their place in a terrific soccer market but which has been slower to adopt the team than in Portland, three hours down the coast.
FC KANSAS CITY
The reigning champions aren't particularly flashy but under Macedonian coach Vlatko Andonovski, they have made the playoffs for the third consecutive year - the only team in the league to accomplish that. They traveled to Chicago where playoff debutants Red Stars awaited and won 3-0.
They lost Lauren Holiday, Heather O'Reilly, Amy Rodriguez and Becky Sauerbrunn but Becca Moros (ex-INAC Kobe-Leonessa of Japan and the Portland Thorns) was solid in the back and rookie forward Shea Groom (ex-Texas A&M University) scored 4 goals and 2 assists in 13 games. Nicole Barnhart, who surprisingly was overlooked for younger backups with the World Cup squad, has a 0.94 GAA (2nd) and led the league in shutouts with 8.
CHICAGO RED STARS
The Red Stars, based in suburban Lisle, Illinois, just missed the playoffs in 2014 but were always a sure bet in 2015, leading the league during the World Cup but falling behind due to a late surge from Seattle to grab the regular season title, while Chicago won one and tied five of their eight games during August/September World Cup winner Christen Press was tied for second in the league with ten goals despite playing in only 12 games.
Head Coach Rory Daines praised his team's work while missing six starters during the World Cup, including Americans Shannon Boxx, Lori Chalupny, defensive star and 2014 NWSL Rookie of the Year Julie Johnston and Canadians goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc and forward Adriana Leon along with New Zealand defender Abby Ercig.
Daines told tribalfootball.com late in the season: "Post [2015 College] draft, we felt good even with losing the national team players. Before they left [for the World Cup] they set the tone for playing. All credit to the rest of the group - they raised the level - players like forwards Sofia [Huerta], Cara [Walls], Michelle Dalton, Gilly, [defender Arin Gilliland] played with more confidence as they played more."
He said that a 3-0 win at home in Boston in May, with all the goals coming in the second half (2 from Huerta and the other from Walls), gave the team the confidence and they went on a 4-2-1 (W-D-L) run.
Daines said, "In a sense it was easier during the World Cup, as we had fewer choices to make. They became comfortable working with each other."
Rookie Sofia Huerta (ex-Santa Clara University)—who turned down a chance to play for Mexico's full side to maintain a chance to play for the Americans—contributed 6 goals and 3 assists. Michele Dalton (ex-University of Wisconsin who had spells in Iceland and Sweden's Second Division) led the league in Goals-Against-Average with 0.92 and had 5 shutouts and only one loss in twelve games.
Chicago Red Eleven, the team's WPSL summer league franchise, won the league crown in July.
Daines said, "NWSL teams don't have big scouting budget so it allows us to look at college kids [in WPSL], and think about who we want to draft for the future. They get to know us and we get to know their training habits and get to know them as people. The WPSL team builds our brand and connects us to the youth clubs and to college coaches."
Former Chelsea Women's assistant coach Mark Parsons again guided his team to the playoffs in his second full season. Probably the most astute coaching move of the season in the entire league was his decision to move Crystal Dunn - a fantastic defender - to the front line.
One of the last cuts from the national team ahead of the Women's World Cup, she blistered the league with 15 goals and no doubt will be named the Player of the Year; she turned out to be more than an adequate replacement for Jodie Taylor's 11 goals last season after the English international was moved to Portland Thorns.
Parsons explained his decision to move Dunn into a #9 role: "She was always attack-minded and is an excellent dribbler in tight spaces. We talked about playing her wide after last season. When Tasha Harding's visa fell through [the Welsh international forward signed before the season from Bristol City who is now with Manchester City], we still had [Francisca] Ordega and [Laura] Del Rio in the middle and Crystal on the wing. We put her in the middle in the Western New York away game [a 3-2 defeat on May 23rd in which Dunn scored once]. Since then, she has lit it up."
American midfielder DaCosta joined from Liverpool and chipped in three goals. Other solid international acquisitions were Nigerian World Cup team member (and formerly of WFC Rossiyanka of Russia and Pitea of Sweden) Francisca Ordega (3 goals and 2 assists in 12 games) and former Spanish international and ex-Frankfurt and Bristol Academy forward Laura del Rio (with 2 assists in 11 games). American midfielder Christine Nairn (ex-Penn State University/Seattle Reign in 2013) contributed 5 goals and 4 assists in 20 games and should add to her two full international caps, received way back in 2009, in the near future.
The second year franchise was headed to the playoffs a month ago but a late season swoon of four consecutive losses in August, including back-to-back defeats to the Reign, scuppered their chances.
Despite having American World Cup Winners Carli Lloyd, Megan Klingenberg and Morgan Brian back for the last month, the Dash looked disjointed at times. Off the field, the Houston DynamoMLS franchise has done an impressive job with the women's side, but head coach Randy Waldrum - who won two Division 1 Collegiate National Championships while at Notre Dame - seems to be out of his depth here. He seems to have particular difficulty with finding solid international additions, as 2014 signings Austrian Nina Burger and Nigerian Osinachi Ohale weren't brought back and 2015 signing Republic of Ireland's Stephanie Roche's stay was short lived.
A couple of Brazilian internationals have not produced consistently. English international Rachel Axon (who played at Oregon State, and in Canada, Brazil and Norway) in midfield has been a plus and Australian fullback Ellie Brush played solid minutes. However, Waldrum seems unable to find a difference maker of the caliber of Sky Blue's Samantha Kerr or Seattle's Kim Little, to pair with the excellent Jessica McDonald (ex-University of North Carolina/Seattle Reign) who had seven goals this season.
Waldrum's odd dual coaching job with Trinidad and Tobago last summer/fall, when they finished fourth in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and then surprisingly fell in the inter-Confederation play-in series to outsiders Ecuador after going scoreless for 180 minutes, didn't help his focus. General Manager Brian Ching - a former U.S. international forward - will probably persevere with Waldrum one more season but the Dash has to start the 2016 season strongly and must make the playoffs, or they risk alienating the fans - the team averaged 6,413 which puts them second in the league to Portland.
The Thorns were inaugural NWSL champions in 2013, but since then have barely made the playoffs in 2014 - falling in the semifinals - and now missing the postseason completely. The season was always a struggle with significant losses to the Women's World Cup (i.e., American midfielder Tobin Heath, forward Alex Morgan, Canadian forward Christine Sinclair and midfielders Kaylyn Kyle and Rhian Wilkinson, German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, Australian winger Stephanie Catley and England forward Jodie Taylor).
Despite that, English native head coach Paul Riley had a stellar year from American Allie Long, who was tied for third in the league in goals with 9; she should see some time with the U.S. National Team in the future. Women's World Cup 2011 and German Frauen-Bundesliga star Ayo Anonma of Equatorial Guinea only had one goal and one assist in 12 games and late additions from the WWC: defender Claire Polkingham (Australia) and forward Lianne Sanderson (England and ex-Arsenal and Boston Breakers) did not propel them into a playoff spot.
Riley had wanted to bring back Spanish international forward Vero Boquette (a star in 2014 with the Thorns and in WPS for Riley as a league Player of the Year with the Philadelphia Independence in 2011) but that didn't transpire as she has joined Bayern Munich this season. It was a difficult situation for Portland, losing so many internationals to Canada and as general manager Gavin Wilkinson explained: "We had all our players make the World Cup Quarterfinals." It spoke to the quality of the players but was a problem, particularly since four returned with injuries.
Riley is absolutely loved by his players, but it seems as he will probably be coaching elsewhere next season, as the Thorns - the league leader in attendance with 15,639; an astounding figure for women's club soccer - are considering not signing him again, taking the opportunity to bring in fresh blood for this MLS (Portland Timbers) owned franchise. Wilkinson stressed that Riley is out of contract and both are discussing the future - Riley's family stayed in New York this season. Wilkinson also said that the Thorns are talking to recently retired German international goalkeeper Nadine Angerer about being involved with the team in some way next season. She could act as a role model to their youth teams and help guide goalkeeper Michelle Betos - who had a fine season and actually scored a goal on a last second corner kick to tie Kansas City (1-1) on June 19th.
WESTERN NEW YORK FLASH
A second consecutive bottom-three finish would seem to doom coach Aaron Lines, but he is the son-in-law of team owner Joe Sahlen, which no doubt can complicate these things. Lines won 3 consecutive titles in 3 different leagues before NWSL and guided the Flash to the first finals, so he should be given some more time to right the ship.
The Flash were pretty aggressive in post-World Cup signings, adding Australian forward Michelle Heyman, Colombian midfielder Lady Andrade and Nigerian midfielder Halimatu Ayinde. Samantha Mewis in midfield was outstanding but Jasmyne Spencer - who scored 8 goals in 13 games and was Sydney FC's Player of the Year in Australia last winter - had a disappointing 3 goals in 19 starts. Rookie forward Lynn Williams (ex-Pepperdine University) had 4 goals and 4 assists in 17 games. Charlie Naimo, who won five W-League champions as head coach of the New Jersey Wildcats and Pali/Los Angeles Blues and brought Marta to WPS when he was general manager of the Los Angeles Sol, is advising on international acquisitions but the Flash need an overhaul next season, and much more production and less pouting from Sydney Leroux (1 goal in 3 games), who was less than happy about her transfer from Seattle to Rochester this season.
Abby Wambach's decision to not play in NWSL in 2015 to focus on the World Cup also threw a spanner in the works - her rights went to Seattle along with defensive midfielder Amber Brooks in the Leroux trade.
SKY BLUE FC
According to sources, this is probably the end of the line for Coach Jim Gabarra, who won a WUSA title with Washington Freedom in 2003 but has failed to make the playoffs during the last two seasons. Sky Blue does have good talent in American midfielder Katy Freels (5 goals and 2 assists in 20 games), Australian international forward Samantha Kerr (6 goals and 2 assists in 9 games) and rookie midfielder Sarah Killion (ex-UCLA). Danish international Nadia Nadim had six goals and one assist in 18 games, down from 7 goals and 3 assists in 6 games in 2014 and Sky Blue probably needs another forward to pair with Kerr. Longtime backup Brittany Cameron's 1.35 GAA belied the strong year she had, including 4 shutouts, while deservedly capturing the starting role.
In NWSL, Boston has finished 5th in 2013, 8th last season and captured the wooden spoon this year with only 15 points, including 13 losses in 20 games. Another franchise begun in WPS in 2009, in twelve games after the World Cup break in June, they lost ten and only won on only one occasion. Boston should thank the heavens above for midfielder Kristie Mewis, who finished tied for 8th in league scoring with 6 goals and started all 20 games.
Rookie Stephanie McCaffrey (ex-Boston College) chipped in 3 goals and 3 assists. Mollie Pathman (ex-Duke University) was again solid in defense but this team needs a fire sale and substantial international input as four new Brazilians in 2015 contributed just 2 assists in 36 games. Paul Riley—if he and Portland part ways—could do wonders here.
Next week, the Women's Football Review will examine the NWSL playoffs and report from the U.S. versus Haiti international from Detroit. Haiti was a late replacement for Australia and we will review the labor situation that drove their national team tour's cancellation.
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham is on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey