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Women's football review: Big foreign influence, huge crowds for exciting NWSL

This week, Tim Grainey takes a detailed look at the NWSL regular season, their impressive crowds and the big overseas influence on the competition.

  The Seattle Reign won the 2014 National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) regular season in commanding fashion.

The Reign finished first with 16 wins, 6 deadlocks and only 2 losses in 24 games for 54 points, a record for the two-year-old league. Led by former Arsenal Women's head coach Laura Harvey, the Reign had a complete turnaround from the 2013 season, when they finished in 7th place out of 8 teams, with only 18 points in 22 games. A key addition this season was Scottish international and former Arsenal striker Kim Little, who scored a league leading 16 goals and worked well with Wales international midfield Jess Fishlock, a holdover from 2013, who chipped in with four goals and a league-leading eight assists.

The top four of the nine teams this season made the playoffs, with second place FC Kansas City and third place Portland Thorns the repeat playoff teams (and qualifying in the same position as in 2013). The other first time playoff qualifier besides Seattle was fourth place Washington Spirit, who finished in last place in 2013. English international Jodie Taylor was a huge addition to the Spirit with 11 goals. Taylor played 31 minutes in last week's World Cup berth clinching defeat of Wales on the road 4-0. (Boston Breakers striker Lianne Sanderson played 90 minutes and scored once for The Three Lions).

Spirit head coach Mark Parsons, a native of England who once coached Chelsea Ladies Reserves, talked about Taylor's influence on the Spirit in her first season: "Not a lot of people heard of her before. She had a huge impact. What separates her from all other forwards is her movement. She's constantly reading the game [and] constantly analyzing every single moment when someone on our team has the ball. She's not a common striker that has one or two movements.

"If she sees a weakness in a defender, she knows how to exploit it. She uses different methods to create space for herself. That's made her successful and made us a dynamic team. We thrive on trying to move the ball and find her when we're in good rhythm but also when we can't find good rhythm, then we have an outlet like her that drags defenders all over the place. She had a big impact for us [this summer]."

Taylor played for Tranmere Rovers before playing college ball in the States at Oregon State University. She played with Birmingham City and on loan to Lincoln Ladies in FA WSL, with Sydney FC and Melbourne in Australia's W-League and in Gothenburg in Sweden's Damallsvenskan.

It will be interesting to see if she can make England's final World Cup squad next summer; she is a very experienced striker who has scored wherever she has been and adapted well in her travels. She could have a very positive impact in Canada if afforded the chance.

Last season Portland defeated Kansas City and Western New York (Rochester) on the road to win the league crown. This year Portland had to defeat Seattle in the last regular season match at home before 17,109 just to make the playoff field. The Chicago Red Stars were much improved over 2013, adding U.S. international Christian Press from Tyreso of Sweden and league Rookie of the Year Julie Johnston, who captained the U.S. U-20 Women's World Cup champion side in 2012. The Red Stars tied with Washington Spirit on 35 points but lost out on a playoff berth on a tie-breaker.

Portland, under new head coach and Liverpool native Paul Riley this season, brought in a number of new players, including German international goalkeeper and reigning FIFA Player of the Year Nadine Angerer, U.S. international Amber Brooks from Bayern Munich and American Rebecca Moros from INAC Kobe Leonessa in Japan.

Riley talked to about another new player to NWSL this past season, his 20-year-old Australian international winger Stephanie Catley, who missed preseason and some early games while away with the Matildas for national team duty at the Asian Cup:

"[We used a] right footed left back in preseason and it's not the best thing; they cut inside all the time. Catley's left footed crosses worked really good, getting U.S. international forward Alex Morgan and Canadian international forward Christine Sinclair in [on goal]."

Riley said that Catley struggled with the quick pace and physicality of the American game during her first few games but then "got used to it." Riley called her a critical player for both defending and going forward.

Riley plays with goalkeeper Angerer high, almost as a sweeper, two centerbacks and a defensive midfielder (the excellent American international Amber Brooks) and pushes his wing backs into attack as much as possible. Riley said that Catley was very clever, had good positioning and has a tremendous future and he "was delighted to have a left back with a left foot--the U.S. team would like to have a left back like her."

Catley was certainly a key piece of the Thorns season and besides her international career and time in Australia with Melbourne Victory, it will be interesting if other international club sides try to recruit her.

Some key American returnees from abroad included Sarah Hagen (from Bayern Munich to FC Kansas City), Whitney Engen (Tyreso of Sweden to Houston), Megan Klingenberg (Tyreso to Houston), Christen Press (Tyreso to Chicago) and Yael Averbuch (Gothenburg to Washington). These players-all in the national team pool-felt that a move home would increase their chances of making the 2015 Women's World Cup squad.

In terms of attendance, Portland's 17,000 versus Seattle mentioned above wasn't their highest of the season; they had over 19,123 for a Sunday match versus Houston a few days before the MLS All-Stars defeated Bayern Munich 2-1 in the Rose City. Owned by the MLS Timbers, the soccer-mad city in the Pacific Northwest has always been a hub for women's soccer exhibition and their per-game average is a legitimate 13,362 (compared with 13,320 in 2013), with a low of 9,672 for a game versus Kansas City in mid-July.

The league average was 4,139-compared to 4,271 in 2013--but without Portland, the league average is just shy of 3,000, which was virtually the same as in 2013. The table for team home attendance was:

Portland Thorns 13,362

Houston Dash 4,650

Seattle Reign 3,666

Washington Spirit 3,335

WNY Flash 3,177

Chicago Red Stars 2,949

Boston Breakers 2,437

FC Kansas City 2,018

Sky Blue FC 1,656

The concern next year for the league is the inevitable break the summer season league needs to take for a North American-based World Cup, though a successful finish for the Americans could spur attendances as it did in WPS in 2011, when there was strong demand to see heroes like Hope Solo, Abby Wambach and others from the team that lost in the finals to Japan.

2015 will also be year three, which was the death knell for the two previous American professional women's leagues, as WUSA and WPS both folded after their third season. Followers of the women's game are justifiably nervous about whether NWSL will make it to year four, but this league-backed by U.S. Soccer and supported by Canada and the Mexico's Federations-is quite stable and realistic in its objectives. We predict that NWSL will be around for a tenth anniversary celebration.

NWSL Semifinal Update

FC Kansas City defeated Portland Thorns 2-0 on Saturday August 23 to make the NWSL final. Last year, they lost their home semifinal to Portland 3-2 in overtime, surrendering a 2-0 lead after 25 minutes. U.S. internationals Amy Rodriguez (65th minute) and Lauren Holiday-nee Cheney-(87th minute) scored the goals to defeat the Thorns.

In the other semifinal on Sunday August 24, Seattle Reign defeated Washington Spirit 2-1 at home, with Scottish scoring phenom Kim Little and U.S. international winger Megan Rapinoe each tallying once. The Reign will host the NWSL Final next Sunday.

 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

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