WPSL DC-area preview (and opening match) 2016

It’s a different landscape for elite women’s soccer in the DC-area this year. With the folding of the W-League, the Spirit Reserves and the Braddock Road Stars Elite (now the Washington Spirit Academy) have come over to the Women’s Premier Soccer League to help form the Colonial Division along with perennial WPSL powerhouse ASA Chesapeake Charge. This means that the Charge and the Spirit teams – long separated by the lack of love between the W-League and the WPSL – will finally play each other for the first time ever, and in home-and-home series. That’s certainly something I’m looking forward to.

The remaining teams in the division are Fredericksburg FC, the Richmond Strikers, and Virginia Beach City FC, but I’m just going to look at the aforementioned ones that I’ve been following.
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Chris’ 2018 NWSL Draft Big Board Top 50 – Sullivan Still #1

Positional Top Fives

GK

1. Casey Murphy – Rutgers
2. Cassie Miller – Florida State
3. Emily Boyd – Cal
4. Caitlyn Clem – Wisconsin
5. Anna Maddox – Samford

DEF

1. Jessie Scarpa – North Carolina
2. Emma Koivisto – Florida State
3. Brittany Basinger – Penn State
4. Hailey Harbison – Pepperdine
5. Michaela Abam – West Virginia

MF

1. Andi Sullivan – Stanford
2. Emily Ogle – Penn State
3. Mikaela Harvey – Texas A&M
4. Rachel Corboz – Georgetown
5. Gabby Seiler – Florida

FW

1. Frannie Crouse – Penn State
2. Megan Schafer – Penn State
3. Jorian Baucom – LSU
4. Ani Sarkisian – Michigan
5. Savannah McCaskill – South Carolina

Overall Top 50

1. Andi Sullivan – MF (DMC), D (CB) – Stanford

This shouldn’t shock anyone with even a remote sense of the college game, as Sullivan would probably get consideration as the #1 overall pick in next year’s draft were she in it. It’s one thing to come into DI with such monumental expectations as Sullivan did, it’s quite another to exceed those expectations as Sullivan certainly has. A former captain of the U.S. U20s, Sullivan was immediately one of the nation’s best in 2014 and a consensus Freshman of the Year as she helped Stanford to another successful season. She took it to another level this past season, winning first team All-America honors and ending up as a Hermann Trophy semi-finalist and will likely be a contender for the award her final two years on the farm as well. Has proven to be durable on the pitch and clutch for the Card as well, with some big goals for the club last year from her deep midfielder role. Can absolutely crush a ball and is a threat to rifle home shots from distance any time she gets a clear window to goal. Is savvy enough to play in a deep role in midfield or even at center-back, as she’s done with Stanford. It’s likely a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ Sullivan gets called up to the full USWNT, and she’ll be hard to displace at the top of this list come draft day in 2018.

2. Jessie Scarpa – D (CB), F (CF) – North Carolina

Scarpa is one of many players in this class with a multitude of options as to where they might play at the next level after having featured in different positions in her two seasons thus far as one of UNC’s brightest young prospects. While still recovering from injury for much of her freshman year, Scarpa still shined quite brightly as a center-back for the Heels and was hardly overawed by the fierce competition of the ACC. But Scarpa tried a different role as a sophomore, fully healthy again, moving into a center forward role and leading the line in both a 3-4-3 and 4-2-3-1 for the Tar Heels. Eight goals and eight assists was an impressive return considering Scarpa had played a completely different role a season earlier, and it doesn’t seem too likely that Scarpa will be moving back to the backline for UNC any time soon, especially considering the scoring woes for the Heels otherwise. Efficiency numbers are a concern, but that’ll probably be reevaluated after another year of leading the line. A mainstay with the U20s for the U.S. during the current cycle, it would be a shock if Scarpa didn’t get the call for the final squad, and given some of the deficiencies of the current squad, the Tar Heel star may need to shine brightly for the U.S. to find glory in Oceania this Fall.

3. Frannie Crouse – F (CF, LF), MF (AML) – Penn State

Take the time to look up and down this list, and you’ll see that there just aren’t a lot of A-level forwards in this draft class, meaning someone like Crouse is going to rise to the top rather easily given her two seasons at PSU thus far. Crouse signed on to the college scene with a flourish in 2014, netting ten times on solid efficiency numbers and improved to eleven goals this past season while more than tripling her assist total with seven. Crouse’s efficiency numbers did dip considerably, as she took twenty-two more shots as a sophomore, but her shot on goal percentage did rise. More importantly, Crouse saved those goals for the biggest matches and did most of her damage against PSU’s toughest opponents in 2015, underlining her ability to get it done in the clutch. Coaches rave about Crouse’s workrate, and her closing speed to the ball is almost frightening at times. 2016 will be a big test for Crouse, as many of her teammates from last year’s national title winning team will be at the U20 World Cup, meaning the forward will have to carry her team on her back at times given the upheaval. If she can manage it, Crouse could all but solidify a spot near the top of the board going into her senior season.

4. Emily Ogle – MF (MC, AMC) – Penn State

The 2014 Big Ten Freshman of the Year and likely member of the 2016 U20 World Cup team for the U.S., Ogle is another Penn State prospect who has played a vital role in the glories of the past two seasons, including 2015’s title winning campaign. Ogle played a bit of a deeper role in a 4-2-3-1 as a sophomore but still managed to make it work for her, netting seven goals on thirty-one shots and putting up a sterling 54.8% SOG mark, which is quite the impressive pair of stats for a central midfielder. Ogle was an absolute workhorse in the midfield last season, starting all twenty-seven matches and scarcely coming out for the national champion Nittany Lions. Proved to be a clutch player as well, netting four goals in the NCAA Tournament, including the winner in the quarterfinal against West Virginia. Perhaps overshadowed by Raquel Rodriguez last year in the center of the park, Ogle could be the center of attention the next time she steps foot on the pitch for PSU. Which might be in 2017, as the Ohio native, as stated above, figures to be in Papua New Guinea for the U20 World Cup this season for the U.S.

5. Emma Koivisto – D (RB, CB) – Florida State

Full Finnish international is already a key component to the overall growth of women’s footy in her homeland as a part of the full WNT. Already in double digits in caps for Finland, Koivisto will be key for the country’s hopes of qualifying for UEFA EURO 2017 next Summer, but she’s already proven to be a major influence in Tallahassee as well in her two seasons with the Seminoles. Another in the long line of marauding international full-backs that have come through the FSU program like France’s Ines Jaurena, Koivisto won a starting spot as a rookie here right away and hasn’t looked back, missing time only for international call-ups for qualifiers for Finland. Didn’t quite match the offensive statistics that she put up as a rookie but was part of a backline that was just as stout as it had been in the past few years. As is the case with almost every international that comes through Tallahassee, the question is whether Koivisto will stay on these shores or chase the money in Europe. Either way, there shouldn’t be any shortage of suitors for the Finnish full-back.
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Spirit continue to roll with 1-0 win over Dash

Goal-scorer Lohman looks for passing options with Estefania Banini and Crystal Dunn looking on.

Goal-scorer Lohman looks for passing options with Estefania Banini and Crystal Dunn looking on.

It can’t be much fun playing the Spirit. When you’ve got the ball, they’re after you no matter where it is on the field, whether it’s Crystal Dunn making your goalkeeper hurry her punt or Ali Krieger man-marking your flank run. When they’ve got the ball, it becomes a game of keep-away that they’re becoming experts at.

On that note, I can’t believe more of a fuss isn’t being made of the 50-second, 17-pass sequence that led to their lone goal. If DC United had done the same thing it would have made SportsCenter. To recap:

37:21 – Stephanie Labbé sends a goalkick to midfield.
37:24 – Tori Huster heads it to her right.
37:30 – Christine Nairn tracks it down and sends it on to Ali Krieger.
37:32 – Krieger sends a backpass that Megan Oyster either taps or just dummies.
37:35 – Labbé kicks the ball forward again.
37:39 – Nairn saves the ball right before it goes out-of-bounds and sends it to Krieger.
37:43 – Krieger passes it to Huster on her left.
37:44 – Huster one-touches a lob across the midfield stripe.
37:46 – Cali Farquharson comes running back and saves possession by heading it on one bounce to Joanna Lohman.
37:47 – Lohman one-touches it to her right to Nairn on the right sideline.
37:53 – Nairn starts to bring the ball forward but then turns and passes it back to Krieger.
37:57 – Krieger brings it forward a few yards and then passes it forward to Diana Matheson on the right sideline.
38:00 – Matheson has a poor first touch but hustles to maintain possession and pass it back to Nairn.
38:01 – Nairn one-touches it forward to Dunn.
38:05 – Dunn dodges around trying to find a way in but gives up and passes it back to Krieger.
38:07 – Krieger collects the ball, then finds an open Nairn making a run down the right sideline.
38:10 – Nairn runs to the ball and with her first touch sends a high ball to Lohman, who’s wide open in the goalmouth.
38:12 – Lohman heads the ball off the underside of the crossbar and in.

Almost a minute of possession with every player involved except the left side backs Shelina Zadorsky and Alyssa Kleiner (who can take some credit as they helped ensure the goal kick that started it all). See it all at

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUyoeiCSp0U&feature=youtu.be&t=2697

With this year’s almost impregnable Spirit defense, that was all that was needed for the win. “Our back line is so tough, and in training I’m like, ‘You guys are brick walls,’ said Crystal Dunn after the game. “I’m just so happy that translates into the games. They are so connected and they rely on each other and they work hard for each other.”

The scary thing is that this team hasn’t peaked yet: Dunn scored fifteen goals last year, better than a goal every two hours of playing time, but hasn’t scored yet this year. Of the other forwards, Katie Stengel has a tap-in on a ball that looked to be going in anyway, and that’s it.

As with last week, the team and Dunn seemed to get more threatening late. “There was about a 10-15 minute period in the second half where we needed to put one in to kind of put this game away,” said Diana Matheson after the game. But Houston Dash goalkeeper Lydia Williams made a succession of big saves to thwart any game-clincher.

“We’ve just got some players maybe pressing a bit, needing a goal,” said Jim Gabarra, “and once they come I think it will be a lot smoother.”

It’s not that Dunn is playing hurt as she has for much of her Spirit career – last year we would tease her about how many icepacks she had on her as she gimped over to the post-game press scrum. This year, we noticed that she ran over to us, icepack-free.

No icepacks? “No! I’m feeling strong and healthy.”

Bothered by not scoring? “It’s fine. My team’s winning. I mean, that’s the only way I’m justified in not scoring. As a forward, I feel like my job is to score, but at the end of the day we’re getting points, and we’re rockin’ it, so it’s all good.”

Meanwhile, the surprise of the team so far this year has to be Joanna Lohman, at 33 the oldest player on the team and (so far as I can tell) the second-oldest field player in the league (after Christie Rampone). But for now only two players in the league have more goals than her: Christen Press and teammate Diana Matheson.

Seven years ago – during the first season of WPS – Gabarra cut her from the roster when you would have thought she was in her prime. Now that she’s at an age when most players have long retired, it’s a different story. “She does a lot of the dirty work, and she manages to get the job done,” he said. “She does a lot of things in the midfield, there, and the team plays off of her. I think she’s a little bit the soul of the team.”

“Jo is a workhorse,” added Dunn. “Ever since she’s been on the team, she’s been nothing but energy and it’s just incredible. I mean at her age, she’s outrunning everybody and I’m trying to keep up with her.”

With the first quarter of the season done, the Spirit are in first place with thirteen points, three clear of the Chicago Red Stars. But their next three games are on the road, where historically the Spirit have done very poorly. But once they’ve played at Portland, Houston, and Boston, we should have a much better idea of whether or not they’re for real this year.

Spirit vs. Thorns: Battle for 1st ends in scoreless draw

Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé is pleased that the Spirit have three clean sheets on the season.

Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé is pleased that the Spirit have three clean sheets on the season.

The Washington Spirit are still waiting for production from their bevy of forwards. Other than a late tap-in last week from Katie Stengel on a ball that looked to be going in already, all the goals have come from defenders or midfielders. Against the Portland Thorns, the failure to get the ball in the net cost them two standings points in a match when they were clearly the better team on the night.

The good news – surprising given the past for both the Spirit and head coach Jim Gabarra, whose teams have been much more known for scoring than prevention thereof – is that the defense has been stalwart, allowing just one goal in four matches and currently riding a 204-minute shutout streak. But for a perfect sequence of passes that led to a Maya Hayes goal for Sky Blue in the 66th minute of that match, they could have four clean sheets instead of just three.
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Chris’ 2019 NWSL Draft Big Board Top 25 – Connolly A Clear #1

Positional Top Fives

GK

1. Rose Chandler – Penn State
2. Devon Kerr – Ohio State
3. Sarah Le Beau – Auburn
4. Ella Dederick – Washington State
5. Vera Varis – UCF

DEF

1. Alana Cook – Stanford
2. Kaleigh Riehl – Penn State
3. Natalie Jacobs – Notre Dame
4. Ellie Jean – Penn State
5. Ally Prisock – USC

MF

1. Megan Connolly – Florida State
2. Taylor Racioppi – Duke
3. Betsy Brandon – Virginia
4. Natalia Kuikka – Florida State
5. Jordan DiBiasi – Stanford

FW

1. Mimi Asom – Princeton
2. Michelle Xiao – Stanford
3. CeCe Kizer – Ole Miss
4. Leah Pruitt – San Diego State
5. Kyra Carusa – Stanford

Overall Top 25

1. Megan Connolly – MF (AMC) – Florida State

Quite simply on another level compared to the other freshmen in Division I in 2015. Connolly probably put together one of the best rookie seasons in recent memory at this level last season and could realistic stake a claim as one of the nation’s best players as she enters her sophomore season having already been named a first team All-American last season and a semi-finalist for the Hermann Trophy. Had some gigantic shoes to fill as a rookie coming in for Dagny Brynjarsdottir in the club’s #10 role in the 4-2-3-1 and now looks like she may have the potential to someday eclipse the Icelandic great in the annals of FSU history. Despite missing three games for international commitments with Ireland, Connolly still netted nine goals and ten assists, but her contributions were more than just what she got on the stat sheet, as her presence at the heart of the attack helped free up the rest of the club’s frontrunners. Connolly’s ability to make things happen and make everyone else around her better is undoubtable, and the Irish international could make history as the first foreign player to be taken #1 if she decides to stay on these shores. If she doesn’t, Connolly will surely be a hot commodity for any ambitious European club.

2. Alana Cook – D (CB) – Stanford

The Card got a stud and a half with Cook, who looks like the crown jewel in another outstanding recruiting class for Paul Ratcliffe’s program. All Cook did as a rookie was step right into a defense that has built a legacy of being a brick wall and partner Maddie Bauer to give Stanford one of the best center-back duos in the nation. Cook had been a mainstay at U17 level coming into Stanford but hadn’t really seen her career ignite at U20 level to follow but put together a brilliant rookie season, winning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors to go along with many other plaudits celebrating her season. Netted three goals to go with her superlative defensive play and should again partner with Bauer in central defense to dominate opposing offenses this year. Cook had worked her way back into the reckoning for the U20 World Cup after last season but looks set to miss out like her Stanford brethren after the controversial redshirt requirement was enacted. It just means the New Jersey native will have to do her best on the backline of a national title contender in 2016.

3. Taylor Racioppi – MF (AMC) – Duke

Another of the youngsters who made the U.S. U20 World Cup roster during the ill-fated 2014 cycle, Racioppi probably put some of the hard lessons learned during that tournament to good use during last year’s dream season for the Blue Devils. Racioppi was miscast as a makeshift center-forward early on for Duke at times last season which definitely isn’t her game, but the Blue Devil offense really got going once Racioppi slid back into a more natural attacking midfield role. Led Duke in assists with six as a rookie and finished second in goals with seven, though her efficiency numbers were ghastly, and many of those goals and assists didn’t come against elite competition. Blue Devils were pretty young in parts in the attack, so Racioppi’s play could grow exponentially as the supporting cast around her matures. Figures to have Duke contending for more College Cup berths in the next few years, but Racioppi is likely to be one of the main keys for success for this year’s U20 World Cup team as a likely starter for the competition.

4. Kaleigh Riehl – D (CB) – Penn State

A lynchpin for the U20 team for the U.S. and all but assured of a spot on the final roster for the 2016 edition of the event should she keep herself in the running for a spot. Riehl quickly established herself as not just one of the best freshmen defenders in the country last season but one of the college game’s best overall defenders after anchoring a backline that carried PSU to their first national title. Started all twenty-seven matches as a rookie and went the distance in eighteen of those matches while being the glue in the middle of a very young back four. Not a prolific scorer or assister from her center-back spot but good for the odd goal or assist and saved them for some pretty big matches as a rookie. I’m not quite sure if she’s a franchise cornerstone type of player yet, but Riehl currently tracks out as a player with great pro potential after last year and will be looking to raise her profile again at the U20 World Cup this year.

5. Natalie Jacobs – D (CB), F (RF) – Notre Dame

First things first, is she a center-back or is she a forward? Jacobs plays centrally for the U.S. U20s but featured frequently as a right-forward in the Irish’s 4-3-3 as a freshman last season, so there’s certainly versatility there if nothing else. Came into South Bend as one of last year’s most heavily hyped recruits and did well as a rookie for the perennial ACC contender, starting fifteen matches for the club. There is a worry that Jacobs didn’t particularly show an acute touch in front of goal though, taking fifty-two shots as a freshman but just scoring four times to go with a brutal 40.4% SOG mark. Five assists help her cause, but if her efficiency numbers can’t improve, it might be time for a full-time switch back to central defense. It’s tough envisioning Jacobs not being on the U20 team for the Fall’s U20 World Cup, so her timetable could get pushed back, but regardless, the competition in Papua New Guinea is likely to be a big determinant of where Jacobs’ stock ends up after this year.
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Spirit start off NWSL’s season 4 with 1-0 win over Breakers

With all the offensive weapons at their disposal, how would you expect the Washington Spirit to score their first goal of 2016? Crystal Dunn on a steal and a breakaway? Christine Nairn from distance? Katie Stengel? Estefania Banini? No, it was Joanna Lohman – at 33 the oldest player on the team – in the 3rd minute on a bicycle kick. “It was honestly a dream come true,” said Lohman after the game. “Hands down the best goal I’ve ever scored. I can officially retire now.”

Washington managed to make the lone tally hold up against a rebuilding Boston Breakers team, not that the latter didn’t have their chances despite an official scoreline of just 2 shots on goal.
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Washington Spirit 2016 Season Preview

The Washington Spirit scrimmage on media day.

The Washington Spirit scrimmage on media day.

GOALKEEPERS (2): Stephanie Labbé (FP-CAN), Kelsey Wys
DEFENDERS (7): Whitney Church, Caprice Dydasco, Estelle Johnson, Alyssa Kleiner, Ali Krieger (FP-USA), Megan Oyster, Shelina Zadorsky (FP-CAN)
MIDFIELDER (5): Estefania Banini (INT’L-ARG), Tori Huster, Joanna Lohman, Diana Matheson (FP-CAN), Christine Nairn
FORWARDS (6): Laura del Rio, Crystal Dunn (FP-USA), Cali Farquharson, Francisca Ordega (INT’L- NGA), Katie Stengel, Cheyna Williams

Changes from last year:

GK: lose Ashlyn Harris in expansion draft, gain Stephanie Labbé

DEF: Zadorsky added. Reynolds traded for Kleiner. Chukwunonye cut.

MID: Banini healthy. Da Costa traded. Salem traded.

FWD: Weimer, Okobi, Raso cut. Farquharson, Stengel, Williams added.

However the season turns out, the Spirit have the historic distinction of hosting the first match ever in the fourth season of a women’s professional soccer league, inaugurating the NWSL’s 2016 season Saturday at 7 at the Maryland Soccerplex.

As for the team, is this the best Spirit team ever? After several years of significant turnover, this year fourteen players return to the roster with just six new ones, making the roster one of the most stable in the league. Losing Ashlyn Harris in the expansion draft is a big loss, of course, but at the other end Gabarra started off training camp with enough forwards for an American League baseball starting lineup. That’s been whittled down to six, but at least this year Crystal Dunn should have some real help with the scoring.
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NWSL 2016 – Chris’ Sky Blue FC Preview

Sky Blue FC

Projected full strength lineup. Questionable starters in parentheses.

Chris’ 2016 NWSL Previews

1st – Seattle Reign
2nd – Chicago Red Stars
3rd – Washington Spirit
4th – Portland Thorns

5th – FC Kansas City
6th – Houston Dash
7th – Orlando Pride
8th – Boston Breakers
9th – WNY Flash
10th –

For a second straight season, it was a case of too little, too late for Sky Blue FC. The New Jersey side finished their season with just two losses in their last nine matches, but a horrific start to the season left the club marooned in eighth place at season’s end. After beating FC Kansas City on opening day in a stunner on the road, SBFC failed to win again until beating Portland on July 11. More often than not, it was a case of the offense going missing, as the club barely averaged above a goal a game over the course of the season. It was a shame, as the defense probably performed better than expected, conceding the same amount of goals as playoff bound Washington.

The offseason bloodletting has been severe, even more severe than you might expect from a club that finished next to last in the final table. Jim Gabarra was one of the first to leave, jumping at the chance to return to Washington to coach the Spirit, while a steady exodus of players has likely concerned the supporter base. The losses include both of last year’s goalkeepers, midfield wizard Katy Freels, and defensive starters Lindsi Cutshall, Cami Levin, and Caitlin Foord. A languid offseason recruiting drive was only bolstered by the additions of Raquel Rodriguez in the draft and the shock return of Natasha Kai to the club. It adds up to the club sinking back into the ultimate underdog role going into 2016, with few likely to tip the club for anything other than a hard season.

Coach

The torturous, embarrassing saga that was Sky Blue FC’s head coaching search ended after ninety-one grueling days, with Jim Gabarra only being replaced officially by previous assistant Christy Holly just a few short days before the 2016 NWSL Draft. To be truthful, few were likely to shed too many tears over Gabarra’s departure after a season of underachievement. While some had tabbed SBFC as a side that could challenge for the playoffs going into 2015, they instead floundered without their national team players and ceded far too much ground in the standings by the time those stars had returned to the fold. Couple that with what looks like an underwhelming draft class after one season, and the New Jersey club likely was happy to get a fresh start at the top heading into 2016.

But SBFC made a right hash of it before promoting Holly to the job. While the organization claimed that Holly was the man for the job all along, it simply defies common sense that he was not just promoted soon after Gabarra’s departure from the Spirit. It makes even less sense considering Holly had been handling a lot of the managerial duties already after Gabarra left, and the uncertainty around the coaching situation probably stunted the club’s offseason activity, which could be a crucial failing considering how much work needed to be done to reinvigorate a franchise that went stale on the pitch last season.

Which brings up the rather onerous question of why would a club promote the assistant who had a helping hand in delivering last season’s next-to-last place finish? Regardless of reason, with SBFC tabbed for the bottom by most coming into 2016, Holly isn’t exactly working to get over a very high bar in his first year as the boss here. But whether he can get enough out of this team to show that has hire was an inspired one is certainly up for debate.

Goalkeepers

On a team with a laundry list of worries coming into 2016, the situation in goal tops the docket for SBFC. It’s not like the situation was all that great last year. Brittany Cameron had proved to be an early heroine for the franchise at the beginning of their NWSL run, but her play in goal eroded to the point that she was (unofficially) guilty of the most individual errors leading to goals last season with six, two more than anyone else in the league. Cameron’s struggles behind a patchy backline made it all the more bizarre that Gabarra didn’t give a longer runout to Aubrey Bledsoe a former U23 keeper for the U.S. who has the potential to at least contend for a starting role in this league.

Both of last year’s keepers are gone. Cameron has decided to make a permanent move to Japan after successful stints there in the past, while Bledsoe is now in Orlando after being selected in the expansion draft by the Pride. You would think that SBFC would have made a serious move to either trade for a starting calibre keeper or take someone like Abby Smith or Britt Eckerstrom in the NWSL Draft. But you’d be wrong. Astonishingly, SBFC chose to sit on their hands for much of the offseason and went into the draft seemingly without goalkeeper being a big priority.

They finally did spend a late pick on William & Mary All-American Caroline Casey, a former youth international who finally put it all together as a senior for the always dangerous Tribe. Casey does have some experience with the Washington Spirit reserves, so she’s not totally a neophyte to pro setups, but few had her near the top of their draft boards positionally in goal going into January. Keepers like Casey from mid-majors often do better with some seasoning in European leagues to help ease them into top-level footy, and simply dropping her into the deep end as the team’s potential starter could be a desperate mistake, especially given the iffy state of the defense.

The problem is there’s essentially no depth behind Casey. The club brought in Caroline Stanley for camp as, presumably, their backup after a season spent in Seattle as the club’s emergency backup. But Stanley only played a single match for the club as a rookie, so it’s not like she’s coming into her new club with a gigantic experience advantage over Casey. And despite learning from two quality keepers with the Reign last year, Stanley was wholly unimpressive as a collegiate keeper at USC, with her decision making a crucial liability, even at that level.

If Casey isn’t ready though, Stanley may face the daunting task of being the last line of defense for a club whose backline may force her into a lot of action. This area is a serious concern for SBFC, and it’s entirely possible that they’ll be forced to pay over the odds for a more experienced keeper if their young duo can’t hit the ground running in their first year with the club.
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NWSL 2016 – Chris’ Orlando Pride Preview

Orlando Pride

Projected full strength lineup. Questionable starters in parentheses.

Chris’ 2016 NWSL Previews

1st – Seattle Reign
2nd – Chicago Red Stars
3rd – Washington Spirit
4th – Portland Thorns

5th – FC Kansas City
6th – Houston Dash
7th –
8th – Boston Breakers
9th – WNY Flash
10th –

The tenth NWSL franchise isn’t doing things halfway in their inaugural campaign. Orlando had been rumored as an expansion franchise for months before being confirmed late last year and has promptly hit the ground running both on the pitch and off. Having the might of one of Major League Soccer’s most ambitious ownership groups behind them has certainly helped with the promotion of the Pride, as Orlando has been quick to blitz the media and build the hype around the upcoming season. Tickets have purportedly moved at a rapid rate, to the point that the club is talking about breaking attendance records in their very first season in the league. It remains to be seen if the Pride can keep the pace up at the box office for the duration of the season, but the early signs from the club’s launch have been quite positive.

The Pride have been wheeling and dealing to make sure the on-pitch product matches the off-pitch ambition. Orlando made a pretty big splash right off the bat by trading for USWNT attacking dynamo, Alex Morgan, an expected move to bring Morgan to the same city as her husband. Oft-injured last year, Morgan has been an in-form terror in the offseason and could be a contender to finally put it together at club level this year. It’s not just Morgan though. The club added star power in the form of Ashlyn Harris and some strong pros at this level like Becky Edwards and Lianne Sanderson. And perhaps most intriguingly, the Pride made a big splash in the management department, naming former USWNT boss Tom Sermanni as their first manager. It all points to an exciting, if unpredictable, first year for the NWSL’s newest club.

Coach

There may be few coaches in the NWSL with as much to prove as Tom Sermanni, who has been desperate for a chance at redemption after his stunning sacking from the USWNT in the run-up to the Women’s World Cup. Sermanni had seemed like a natural choice to so many but was turfed out after some patchy results, including some infamous results at the Algarve Cup that may have played a major role in his dismissal. Since, he’s worked as an assistant with the Canadian WNT but has been clamoring for an opportunity to get back in the game proper and reignite his reputation in the WoSo world.

That opportunity came in the form of the opening with the expansion Orlando Pride, and Sermanni would have been a fool to turn down an offer to captain a side with the financial backing and ambition of MLS’ Orlando City. From the promotional work to a marketing drive that could deliver consistent bumper crowds, even with the team’s new stadium’s opening delayed, Orlando looks like a perfect place to establish a potential powerhouse in the still growing NWSL. It’s hard to argue that the Pride aren’t in a better position than Houston was upon their entry into the league given some of the big name players the club has been able to attract in their short lifespan thus far.

But it’s been a while since Sermanni’s been involved in club management, and he hasn’t really had a serious job at club level since his stint in the WUSA of old, where he managed the New York Power but never really got a chance to complete a massive rebuilding project after taking over a broken team following a historically bad 2002. The club game has obviously changed by leaps and bounds since, and a prevailing storyline surrounding this team going into 2016 will be if Sermanni can re-adapt to club level ball after so long in the international game.

Sermanni’s used to a big building project though, as evidenced by his time at the head of the Australian WNT. Through a commitment of building a program through youth, Sermanni was able to turn an anonymous Australia program into one of the world’s most promising and exciting sides. Part of that excitement though was centered around some obvious defensive failings that Sermanni also struggled to iron out of the USWNT during his short tenure there. Building a team with strong foundations on both side of the ball is going to be key for any type of playoff run, but at the very least, Sermanni’s all action playing style at past stops should ensure entertainment in 2016. For better or for worse.

Goalkeepers

When building a club from scratch, you better have someone capable of directing traffic between the pipes, as automatic defensive cohesion’s not a sure thing. It’s a good thing then that the club was able to bring in Ashlyn Harris via the expansion draft to serve as the last line of defense. Firmly entrenched as the U.S.’ #2 in goal at the moment, Harris may be hoping that she’s not as busy as she often was with the Spirit, dealing with a backline that was by turns too young or just not talented enough in her three years with the club. At the age of thirty, Harris is perfectly positioned to be the U.S.’ #1 for the next WWC cycle if Hope Solo steps away after the Olympics, but she’ll need to keep at the top of her game. She made just one error leading to a goal in ten games last season by my personal count, and that type of form would hold Orlando in good stead as they embark on their debut campaign.

With Harris likely to miss a chunk of time while with the USWNT this season, it was important to find a qualified understudy, and the Pride should have done so by taking Aubrey Bledsoe in the expansion draft. Bledsoe’s endured something of a stop-start beginning to her professional career, playing for a short stint in Europe before ending up back in the U.S. with Sky Blue FC last year. Logic would say that with SBFC struggling defensively and with Brittany Cameron showing a blunder prone side to her game, Bledsoe would get more than a token runout off the bench. But that’s all she got last season, and Bledsoe will be looking to reignite a career which has puzzlingly stalled out. She’s still largely an unknown commodity at this level, but the Pride will be desperate for Bledsoe to be up to the task when Harris is away.

The club also needs an emergency reserve fill-in when Harris is gone. And that could be a problem, as the only other keeper in camp to our knowledge has been Julia Kantor, a small school prospect from Florida Tech. Cantor bounced around in college but only really began to meet her potential as a senior at the DII school. Needless to say, if Kantor sees the field for any extended length of time in 2016, the Pride could be in deep trouble.

Compared with a lot of other teams in the league, the Pride look well set in goal. Harris will be a big asset for a defense that has to gel and could be worth her weight in gold in close matches for the club this season. Bledsoe’s ability at this level is still something of a mystery, but if she plays to her potential, the Pride will be fine, meaning this could be a strong point for the expansion club in 2016.
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