NWSL Week in Review: Five Things (Week 2)

When you read an article like this in the New York Times of all places, the first reaction – understandably – is straight up anger. Because if you’re reading this, it’s highly likely you have a passion for women’s soccer, and when you see misinformation, or more importantly, half-truths, about a cause that is near and dear to your heart, it hurts. You know the history, you know how hard people have worked to make this version of women’s professional soccer in this country work, and that it’s going to take time to succeed in this culture.

As poorly written as it is, though (hey, New York Times, I can write in proper sentences if you want to hire me), it’s hard to discount completely the overall premise, which is that the NWSL – while far from desperate – faces an uphill struggle to become somewhere where the best women’s soccer players in the world can draw a decent salary to play the game professionally.

And the juxtaposition was striking on Saturday in Maryland as Washington and Kansas City played what I thought was the most entertaining NWSL game I’d seen in two seasons, not just with the goals and chances, but with the technical display of the players. There were a few defensive miscues and poor touches, sure, but some of the best soccer players in the world showed why they are.

At the end of the day, 2,577 came to see it. Should we care? Probably not as much as people say we should, but you wish people could see what you see. Maybe someday they will. Until then, we’ll just keep fighting the good fight, and watching the beautiful game.

Without further ado, five things we learned from the second weekend of the NWSL campaign:

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Washington Spirit down FC Kansas City, 3-1

Lori Lindsey with the night's heroines: Diana Matheson, Christine Nairn, and (in the distance) Crystal Dunn.

Lori Lindsey with the night’s heroines: Diana Matheson, Christine Nairn, and (in the distance) Crystal Dunn.

Is history repeating itself? Twelve years ago the WUSA-era Washington Freedom came off a miserable first season and entered their second having overhauled their roster in the hope of doing better. They started out well against the visiting New York team, scoring an early goal. But when the Power equalized, the team lost all composure and ended up losing, 4-1.

The following week the defending champion CyberRays came to town. The Freedom gave up an early goal but held tough and scored two unanswered goals to pull out an upset win.

The story for the Spirit has been similar in their sophomore season, letting an opposing goal rattle them last week while shrugging the same off this time for a 3-1 win over FC Kansas City. It helped that for once Washington struck early, as in the fourth minute Crystal Dunn made a terrific run forward that had the formidable KC back line scrambling. They managed to get the ball away from her, but it fell right to Diana Matheson, who knocked it in.
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NWSL – Fantasy Round Two Preview + Details on AWK Group

With the addition of groups into the NWSL fantasy game, I’ve naturally added a group for AWK readers. And naturally, there’s a twist. Specifically, the low scorer each round out gets booted at the end of the round. At the end of the season, top aggregate scorer who’s avoided the cut wins the league. Simple, huh?

To join:

http://t.co/IqlSVAjkF5

Password = eliminator

The group will be locked after the roster freeze for round two on Saturday. Have fun!

Some brief thoughts on a disappointing Round One from yours truly:

-I think everyone who bet big on Christine Sinclair (including me) was cringing as the Thorns looked too much like last year’s team at its worst going forward. They’ll get better with time, but I’d stay away from everyone right now not named Nadine Angerer and Rebecca Moros at the moment, especially with a tough matchup this round.

-Houston were game on the pitch against Portland but did little of note fantasy-wise against the Thorns. The defense gets another downgrade without Bock in front to shield it, while it’s difficult to trust anyone on the attack. Boston’s a tantalizing opponent this round, but I’d wait to see who steps up.

-The results were good for anyone who will be riding on Amy Rodriguez as a fantasy option, as it looks like she’ll be front and center for FCKC this year. The results for Lauren Holiday and Erika Tymrak look much more mixed after one round after the two lit up fantasy last season. The defense will probably still be great despite an uncharacteristic flub to concede against SBFC. Kassey Kallman looks like another great option after an assist last Saturday.

-I don’t know what to make of SBFC’s attack, other than Katy Freels likely being at the heart of what the club does. Not many thought Monica Ocampo would start from the bench, and I’d avoid that situation entirely until things shake out. Caitlin Foord was immensely disappointing in her first start on the wing, producing a long line of fouls but little else. I wouldn’t be shocked if she fell off many radars with a tough matchup this weekend. Other defenders might be sneaky plays against a disjointed Portland offense this round.

-Vicky Losada looks like a great short-term play for fantasy owners, especially with another shaky defense in Chicago this round. I’d be careful in the long-term though, as there’s no telling how the offense will respond once Abby Wambach returns. Carli Lloyd was a bust last round, but I expect a rebound against a Chicago side with few true defensive midfield options. Brittany Taylor and Lydia Williams also look like solid options for the season after nice round ones.

-Washington has a double week this round, but I’d be surprised if many were rushing to include their players in lineups after such a putrid display against WNY. Christine Nairn, Jodie Taylor, Crystal Dunn, and Diana Matheson are likely the only palatable options, and Dunn and Matheson will both cost you an allocation. Avoid the defense at all costs, especially with a daunting trip to Seattle against a fully rested Reign side in midweek.

-Part of the game with Seattle this season is going to be guessing successfully who gets the points in an offense with tons of options. If you guessed Sydney Leroux (like me) you probably weren’t thrilled with a seven point return. If you guessed Kim Little and Megan Rapinoe, you probably were much happier. The above trio are all top options this round. Hope Solo looks a near cert for a clean sheet if you’re willing to spend an allocation on her. You almost have to have one of Eli Reed/Lauren Barnes/Kendall Fletcher in your lineup to cover the clean sheet as well.

-I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions about Boston’s attack with Kristie Mewis out and Lisa De Vanna limited to sub minutes. This weekend’s probably the acid test against a depleted Houston, but it’s still hard to trust any of the Breakers in attack. I feel safe in saying to avoid the defense though, which looked appalling. Alyssa Naeher may be an option in goal for the truly brave considering the shots she’s facing, but beyond weeks at home against shaky opposition like this, I’d avoid.

NWSL Fantasy Team Rankings – Round 2

1. Seattle
2. WNY Flash
3. FC Kansas City
4. Portland
5. Sky Blue FC
6. Boston
7. Chicago
8. Washington
9. Houston
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Houston Dash Drop Points But Gain Confidence In Debut

(Photo by Wilf Thorne)

(Photo by Wilf Thorne)

The Houston Dash made a point Saturday night, though not one reflected in the league standings. Houston Mayor Annise Parker and NWSL Commissioner Cheryl Bailey were on hand to add an air of significance to the event and offer well-wishes in advance of the side’s maiden voyage. Aside from Allie Long’s opportunistic first half goal, one would be excused for failing to pick out the reigning champions from the expansion outfit.

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NWSL Week in Review: Five Things (Week 1)

I guess the fact that the NWSL has returned for a second season is something to celebrate with the recent history of women’s professional soccer leagues in North America. Of course, your mind knows that the backing of USSF (as well as Canada) made that possibility virtually zero, but your still mending heart is a tad bit gunshy these days.

The tendency in all sports is always to put more emphasis on on opening game than we should. It’s been seven months since we’ve seen a game, and our minds like to project a single performance over the rest of the summer. So it’s not time for teams like Boston and Washington to panic, or for Seattle and Western New York to start making plans for the NWSL final quite yet. I’m going to go out on a limb, though, and say that the Reign have a much better chance than they did at this time last season.

Without further ado, five things we learned from the opening weekend of the NWSL campaign:

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In opener, Spirit sputter while Spaniard sparkles

Defender Robyn Gayle was the one strength in an otherwise porous back line

Defender Robyn Gayle was the one strength in an otherwise porous back line

Sometimes there’s more to being the winning team than having more talent. Even without Abby Wambach (out with a broken bone under her left eye) and with a tired Carli Lloyd just back from her stellar Thursday night WNT performance, the Western New York Flash showed more mental toughness, behaving like last year’s regular-season champions as they downed the Washington Spirit, 3-1.
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2014 NWSL Preview – Chicago Red Stars

Projected Early Season Lineup (Questionable Starters in Parentheses)

Projected Full Strength Lineup (Questionable Starters in Parentheses)

Two steps forward, two steps back for Chicago, who are probably wondering if they’ll ever be whole by this point. The Red Stars were very hard done by before a ball had even been kicked in anger in 2013. With a glut of defensive midfielders, the club traded away Keelin Winters but also lost Amy LePeilbet through injury before the season and Shannon Boxx to injury early in the new campaign. Couple that with unproductive Canadian and Mexican allocations (other than Erin McLeod), the club’s two international German signings not arriving until midseason, and top pick Zakiya Bywaters missing most of the season through injury, and you had a recipe for disaster.

It didn’t quite end up that way. Head coach Rory Dames proved to be a very astute judge of young talent, with all the rookies besides Bywaters contributing in a big way. Add in a Herculean performance by Lori Chalupny up front and a pragmatic but effective gameplan, and you had a Chicago side that probably defied many predictions of a season at the foot of the table. They didn’t have enough juice to get to the playoffs, but with two first round picks in this year’s draft joining players returning from injury and some other big additions, it’s hard to not be optimistic about the Red Stars going into 2014.

The biggest addition though is of USWNT forward Christen Press, the type of big time goalscorer the club has needed since its birth in WPS. Press has dazzled earlier as a rookie in WPS and over in Sweden, where she’s lit up opposing defenses with regularity. The problem? Press joins up at midseason, meaning the club will be without its biggest weapon for potentially a third of the campaign. Add in LePeilbet being jettisoned without ever playing for the club, Taryn Hemmings working her way back from injury, Shannon Boxx still getting match fit after having her first child, and Leslie Osborne’s retirement, and you’ve got…a typical Red Stars season really. Except this time, they may have enough talent to be in the playoff race by the time they’re whole at midseason.

Coach/Tactics

Rory Dames was called upon to pick up the pieces of an underachieving Red Stars side as they dropped down into WPSL and WPSL Elite after their unsuccessful WPS stint and helped oversee the club’s run of success in the lower tiers of competition. It was hardly a shock then that Dames was tasked with overseeing the club’s rise back up the ladder in the NWSL. Long a fixture with the local Eclipse club in Chicago, Dames proved a nice judge of young talent last season, with late round draft picks like Jen Hoy and Taylor Vancil doing very well for themselves. Dames also did a creditable job in knowing his team’s limitations and setting them up in a fashion in which they were very rarely overrun. It didn’t always make for compelling spectacle, but it did keep Chicago in games more often than not.

Frustratingly, Dames may not be able to be more proactive at the beginning of the season with the club already thin on numbers defensively through injury. Taryn Hemmings looks set to miss the beginning of the season, meaning any mystery in Julie Johnston’s position has been cleared up early. Who plays beside her is still more up in the air though, as the main contenders may be converted full-back Michelle Wenino and Jackie Santacaterina, who is coming off hip surgery herself. With Boxx out, the club may be using Julianne Sitch as the defensive midfielder, itself not really an ideal fit. The defensive problems have really had a knock-on effect throughout, as Wenino, a potential starter at left-back, may be replaced by Kecia Morway, an undrafted camp invitee. Hemmings’ arrival should allow Wenino to slide back left, but you’d hardly argue with the club signing another defender or two.

The situation is thankfully a lot more bearable in attack, even without Christen Press for a while. Jen Hoy looked a dangerous center forward late last season and will likely be ably supported by Adriana Leon and Zakiya Bywaters on the flanks. It could also open up space for Lori Chalupny and Vanessa DiBernardo in the center of the park. Ideally, the club would probably prefer the duo to be closer to goal in a 4-2-3-1, but if Leon’s playing on the left flank, that’s probably a no go. When Leon’s gone though, the club may well shift that way, with Chalupny as the left-winger and DiBernardo central in the #10 role. With the club short on true defensive midfielders though, how they’d organize the rest of midfield is a big question mark. Press figures to slot right in at center forward upon her arrival. How the club plans to blood Melissa Tancredi in is a puzzle. She’d seemingly work best in a 4-4-2 partnered up with Press up top, but that wouldn’t necessarily play to the club’s strengths, as a central midfield pairing of Chalupny and DiBernardo without a midfield fulcrum behind them for support. Regardless, Dames is still probably happy to deal with a glut of offensive options for once.
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2014 NWSL Preview – Washington Spirit (Chris’ Take)

Projected Starting Lineup (Questionable Starters in Parentheses)

The Washington Spirit are probably sick of hearing about 2013. So let’s keep it short. The club was awful. They finished last. It’s over. On to 2014.

OK, let’s be clear, the Spirit were awful until the last handful of matches, when they began to look like a proper club that could defend and had at least faint traces of offense. Faint traces aren’t going to cut it if Washington wants to reach the playoffs though, an explanation of why the Spirit underwent an extreme makeover on that side of the ball, bringing in a whole new crew of forwards to try and do the business up front. Add in midfielders Crystal Dunn and Christine Nairn, arriving from the draft and a trade respectively, and the Spirit shouldn’t finish towards the bottom of the scoring chart. Hopefully.

Head coach (and now general manager) Mark Parsons has inspired a lot of confidence from supporters and players alike, and few believe this club will finish bottom again this season. One has to wonder if enough has been done on defense to cure the club’s other big problem though. Getting Toni Pressley in for a full season, Ali Krieger healthy for hopefully the whole season, and perhaps a solution to the left-back revolving door of last season points to optimistic signs. But optimism alone doesn’t fuel playoff runs, and the Spirit need to come together as a unit from the off to challenge for a top four finish. In that respect, Parsons will be hoping last season’s late show wasn’t all smoke and mirrors as he tries to engineer a charge up the table.

Coach/Tactics

Parsons inherited a mess upon taking over midseason last year, and it took a while for him to put his stamp on the team, restoring confidence to a side who had been beaten down over the course of the first few months of the new campaign. At the end of the season, the Spirit weren’t exactly exciting, but they were competent at the very least at the back. But it was clear that the Spirit were going to need much more offensively, hence the purge in the offseason, aided by some of the club’s rivals, obviously. The team’s added experience in spades through trades and other transactions, and Parsons will be hoping it helps wring some consistency out of a side prone to fits of maddening play last season. Beyond tactics though, Parsons has proven to be a shrewd operator in matters off the field, and it’s not hard to see why the Spirit’s supporters have taken more than a small liking to their manager.

Tactically, it’ll be interesting to see how Parsons tries to get his side firing after last season’s struggles in front of goal. I suspect Parsons didn’t try to bring in every striker that wasn’t tied down to play just one up top. Jodie Taylor probably has one spot locked down giving her recent scoring form abroad, but who else fills in is up in the air. Danesha Adams has the experience but goes missing far too often, while the likes of Renae Cuellar and Tiffany Weimer both provide different looks in terms of pace and creativity respectively. The club will need great service from the midfield of course, and it looks to be in solid shape with the indefatigable Diana Matheson on the right, and Crystal Dunn likely on the left. Dunn could conceivably play in a similar role to the one she played in college as a dribbling #10, but her ability to stretch play could be invaluable down the flank.

Defensively, the team returns three of four starters…which may be a good or a bad thing depending on your viewpoint. Ali Krieger did fine when healthy, Toni Pressley was here only half the season, and Tori Huster was still learning the position. If they all come together, the Spirit could make big strides forward defensively. Cecilie Sandvej is an interesting addition on the left, but her work in the preseason still showed she’s far from the finished product, meaning opposing teams may again attack the club’s left-back. The addition of Yael Averbuch might be key in the end, as the club struggled without a true defensive midfielder last year. Averbuch doesn’t fit the destroyer mold, but she should at least be able to hold her own against opposing playmakers in the middle of the park.
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2014 NWSL Preview – Houston Dash

Projected Early Season Lineup (Questionable Starters in Parentheses)

Projected Full Strength Lineup (Questionable Starters in Parentheses)

Anyone questioning the Houston Dash’s ambition need only go back to the club’s hiring of Randy Waldrum as their first manager to be put at ease. Not that there was much questioning of the scope of the project once the league hurriedly gave the MLS Dynamo franchise the green light to proceed with the league’s ninth franchise. With the facilities and financial firepower to back up the bid, it was not hard to see why the club was welcomed with open arms, as rushed as it may have been in the end. Perhaps the deep pockets also helped in luring Waldrum, who looked well entrenched at Notre Dame, one of the nation’s best jobs at college level.

But beyond the professionalism off the pitch that their parent club is bound to provide, the Dash still need to construct a winner on the pitch to truly approach their fantastic potential as a franchise. In this respect, it’s pretty important that the club managed to reel in Waldrum, who was well in tune with the pulse of the women’s soccer world from both his college and youth international coaching experience. There aren’t any A-list attractions on display, but the club’s first boss has done well in betting on young talent he’s coached in the past along with some veterans with points to prove. Supporters would do well to remember their club has an injury crisis and international absences to deal with early in the year though. When the Dash is whole, they could be a match for most in the league, but until then, the club’s collective mettle will be tested.

Coach/Tactics

On paper, Waldrum moving down to Texas for a new chapter in his coaching life shouldn’t be too surprising. The ex-Notre Dame boss had won everything at the college level with the Irish and was facing perhaps a year or two of transition as his club acclimated to the ACC. Couple that with the potential to move to Texas to be close to family and the challenge of building a professional calibre squad backed by deep pockets, and it proved to be too much to resist. The Dash boss proved to be a canny and adaptable boss with Notre Dame, not afraid to change tactics and strategy, often to great effect. He’s preached a desire to emulate the “tiki-taka” of Barcelona, but is there a new coach that doesn’t at this point? Indeed, it might be Waldrum’s ability to cultivate a pragmatic, disciplined gameplan within his squad that really tells the tale in Houston this season. With the team’s defensive worries early, playing openly and with free flowing abandon could be a recipe for a hiding or two.

The defense is going to be the big talking point for the first half of the season in Houston. Injuries and international absences have reduced this unit to likely starting three rookies and a converted forward. That’s obviously a very bad sign going against some explosive offenses, and you wonder why Waldrum hasn’t tried out Brittany Bock more at center-back in preseason friendlies. Waldrum’s stubbornness in sticking with Bock and Edwards in central midfield could prove detrimental to the bottom line if the Dash can’t hold their water on the backline. Nikki Washington is a converted winger and will have to be disciplined in her positioning in her new role, while Ari Romero has shown little interest in staying back in the right-back zone, bombing forward at will. With a pair of rookie center-backs in all likelihood, there may be worries about space to counter into for Dash opponents. The second half of the season should sort things out, with Whitney Engen coming into central defense, but how Waldrum handles his two left-backs, Meghan Klingenberg and Aya Sameshima, is another point worth watching.

With Bock and Edwards likely inseparable in defensive midfield, the front four will likely be carrying a big burden in lifting the attack in 2014. Playing the point at the top of the midfield triangle will likely be either Jordan Jackson or Teresa Noyola. Noyola appeared to have the position down on paper and provides playmaking ability, but Jackson has seen most of the time in the preseason and brings explosiveness and athleticism to the table. It might be a situation of playmaker by committee depending on Waldrum’s mindset. Ella Masar seems likeliest to play up top early when the club is going to need non-stop workrate from all to keep opposing offenses at bay. Stephanie Ochs and Kealia Ohai may be the more direct threats at goal, with both wingers able to cut inside and attack the net. The attack looks young and/or inconsistent on paper though, so it might be trial and error for a while in Houston while everyone settles.
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Washington Spirit season preview: 2014 will not be like 2013

WashingtonSpirit2

Last year for the Spirit goals were few and far between. On Maureen Hendricks Field last year from the run of play – that’s ignoring for the moment three Diana Matheson penalty kicks – Washington scored all of seven goals. Against the Maryland Terrapins last Saturday they matched that total in 90 minutes, helped by a hat-trick from English international Jodie Taylor. Those three goals were one short of the total that the Spirit forwards combined managed all last season.

But the team has upgraded almost everywhere, not just up top. Let’s look at the upgraded roster, position-by-position.
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