This week we look at NWSL's signing of a European Women's World Cup star, examine some interesting names on NWSL's start of preseason training rosters among their college draft picks and non-roster players, and announce that an English Women's Super League side is coming to America for a high profile exhibition match in May.
AMANDINE HENRY THE FIRST FRENCH PLAYER IN NWSL
Portland Thorns scored a major coup on March 15th, not only for their title hopes but also for the credibility of the entire league, when they signed Frenchwomen Amandine Henry, who won the Silver Ball at the FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada last summer as the tournament's second best player behind American Carli Lloyd.
Henry has expressed interest in coming to the States - her contract at Lyon expires at the end of this season - though economically she probably could have done better staying in Europe. Henry, a midfielder, did say that she had interest from clubs in England, France and Germany.
Henry, 26, has spent nine seasons with Lyon, helping the club to two UEFA Women's Champions League titles (2010-11 and 2011-12) and they are currently in the quarterfinals of the 2015-16 tournament - the first leg of which is on Wednesday, March 23 - as well as 8 league crowns and four Women's French Cups. Henry has 48 goals in 198 matches in all competitions for Lyon and six goals in 48 international matches for her national side.
Former Chelsea assistant coach Mark Parsons - the new head coach of the Thorns after two successful full seasons in charge of the Washington Spirit - said about the club's new signing: “Amandine is one of the very best in the world, and I am delighted she is joining us in Portland in her prime.
"Her ability to control the game in the center of midfield helps everyone else do their job better. She has exceptional passing range, is very intelligent on and off the ball and can score special goals, as she proved in the World Cup last year.
"Amandine brings a winning mentality to a talented group and I believe she will play an important role in supporting our team chemistry and culture, on the field and in the locker room."
Her signing could put the Thorns into juggernaut status in NWSL, disrupting the perception of equality and parity among the teams, part of which was attractive to Henry.
Though the Thorns lost American forward Alex Morgan to expansion side Orlando, Henry will still have Canadian forward Christine Sinclair, a four-time World Cup team member and second leading international scorer of all-time, English international Jodie Taylor and Danish international Nadia Nadim (ex-Sky Blue FC) in front of her.
In midfield, veterans Allie Long and Tobin Heath are instrumental players along with another ex-French league player, American Lindsey Horan and new signing Dagny Brunjarsdottir, who is an Icelandic international who played at Florida State University followed by a spell with Bayern Munich.
At goalkeeper, German international Nadine Angerer has retired but is an assistant coach and will work closely with American Michelle Betos, who had strong seasons in 2015 in Portland (where she scored a game-tying goal with her head from the field of play) and with Sydney FC.
Henry's signing sends the message that NWSL is the top quality league in the world and should help attract other top international players to the league in the seasons to come.
NWSL PRE-SEASON ROSTERS
NWSL started its preseason training camps this week, ahead of the first league games on April 16-17. Looking at the rosters of the 10 teams, which typically include from 6-11 non-roster players attempting to win a spot, as well as the college draft choices - which, other than first round picks, are typically not guaranteed to make the team - there are some interesting findings among the rosters.
Some of these non-roster players or lower round draft picks can make their squads if they perform well and if the team has a need for their positional skills. Some of the players of interest include:
Houston Dash - Forward Tessa Florio-Gavilsky played 19 games last season for Mallbacken and scored one goal. Chioma Ubogagu came back from Europe after playing with Arsenal and is on contract. Ubogagu scored six goals as a rookie with the Gunners in 2015. She played youth ball in Texas before playing at Stanford University. Ubogagu won a U-20 World Cup for the U.S. in 2012 but has not been capped at the senior level and could play at the full international level for England, Nigeria or the U.S.
A near certainty to make the Dash roster is former English youth international forward Rachel Daly, the Dash's number 1 pick in the 2016 College Draft (#6 overall). Daley scored 19 goals and 5 assists in 20 games for St. John's University and played for Lincoln Ladies at home for two seasons.
Orlando Pride - Forward Leah Fortune is a Brazilian-American who grew up in Illinois, played at the University of Texas and for the Charlotte Eagles in the W-League. Fortune was born in Brazil to missionary parents and played for Brazil at the U-20 level. She could play for either Brazil or the U.S. at the full level.
Portland Thorns - Anna Maria Gilbertson was raised in California, scored 26 goals in 85 games in four years at the University of Notre Dame - including 20 goals in 2015 and 10 in 2014 - and qualifies to play for either the U.S. or Costa Rica.
Seattle Reign - Erica Shelton played at the University of California, Santa Barbara for two seasons and then for Cal State Bakersfield; she used online crowd sourcing to help her quest in attempting to try out with up to 5 teams - targeting the Reign, Thorns, Dash, Red Stars and Sky Blue. She has raised $1,300 towards her goal of $5,000 for expenses in her quest.
Sky Blue FC - Forward Tasha Kai, a former U.S. international and star with Sky Blue FC Philadelphia Independence in WPS, is attempting a comeback to professional soccer. She tallied 24 goals and 13 assists in 67 national team matches, including winning a bronze medal in the 2007 Women's World Cup and a gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, both of which were held in China. Kai won the inaugural WPS championship with Sky Blue FC in 2009 and though drafted by the Spirit in 2013, she has not played in the league, as she first recovered from a knee injury and has been playing on the U.S. Rugby 7's national team.
Defender Rachel Breton is also in camp and played in Norway for Amazon Grimstad FK after college at Villanova and played one game for Sky Blue back in 2013.
Leah Galton was a second round pick draft pick of Sky Blue from Hofstra, where she scored 12 goals and had 6 assists last season. Galton was a youth international for England and spent time with Leeds United.
Washington Spirit - Chilean Yanara Aedo will attempt to secure a NWSL spot this year; she signed in early 2015 but played only with the Spirit Reserves last season where she was a force and secured the W-League title with two goals in a superb finals performance against Colorado Pride (2-1).
Western New York Flash - Carolina Arias is a midfielder with WNY Flash who played all 4 matches for Colombia in the 2015 World Cup.
ARSENAL LADIES TRAVEL TO PLAY SEATTLE REIGN IN MAY
Seattle Reign FC will play WSL side Arsenal Ladies FC on Thursday May 26 at Memorial Stadium.
This will be the first time Arsenal will play in the U.S. and it makes perfect sense, given that Seattle Reign head coach Laura Harvey coached at Arsenal before taking the Seattle job in 2013, where she won the first two WSL titles and three English league titles in total. Scottish international midfielder Kim Little, who was NWSL Player of the year in 2014, played at Arsenal for six seasons and won four league titles and three Women's FA Cups.
Current Arsenal boss Pedro Martinez Losa of Spain has a NWSL connection as well as he was formerly an assistant with WNY Flash for two seasons. He has a good mix of Spanish internationals in forward Natalia Pablos (tied for second last season in WSL1 goals with 7), midfielder Vicki Losada (ex-Flash in 2014) and Marta Corredera (ex-Barcelona in Spain) along with experienced English internationals forwards such as 37-year-old Kelly Smith (ex-Philadelphia Charge in WUSA and Boston Breakers in WPS/WPSL Elite) and 36-year-old Rachel Yankey (who played for Laval Dynamites and New Jersey Wildcats in the W-League), though Yankey was just signed on loan by Notts County for the WSL season.
In defense, 31-year-old Alex Scott is another former Breaker in WPS. Arsenal Ladies FC most recently finished third in the 2015 Women's Super League, collecting 27 points with a record of (8-3-3) and are the only English side to win the UEFA Women's Champions League in 2006-07.
Arsenal will start its 2016 campaign on Wednesday, March 23. Previously, Seattle hosted the Haitian Women's National Team in 2013, a 6-0 victory, while in 2015 Reign FC drew 1-1 with China's Women's National Team. Harvey said about the upcoming exhibition: “We are excited that our fans will have the opportunity to see Reign FC take on one of Europe's biggest and most talented clubs.
"Our objective to become one of the world's best women's soccer clubs is furthered by competing against world-class teams such as Arsenal. It is a tangible demonstration of our ambition on and off the field, and it showcases our desire to create special experiences for our supporters in Seattle."
It would be nice to see more international sides come over during the NWSL preseason, since most clubs play only college sides or summer league club sides who are off-season This preseason, out of 35 games, all involving games versus college sides except for three games, between Houston, Seattle and Portland in a tournament. Paul Riley, formerly coach of Portland and now at Western NY, has expressed to this reporter on multiple occasions his desire to see NWSL sides either play each other or international club or national teams during preseason. Though some of the games against College sides are top notch sides - Florida State, West Virginia, Notre Dame - they are in their off-season (spring) which is not typically taken as seriously.
An example is on Saturday, March 19, Orlando Pride defeated Eastern Florida State College, the 2015 national junior college runner-up in the championships, by an 8-0 score in their first ever game, with American international forward Alex Morgan scoring 4 times. Also on Saturday, the Washington Spirit defeated perennial powerhouse University of Virginia 3-0. NWSL teams need more challenging games to adequately prepare for 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