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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NWSL 2016 – Chris’ Chicago Red Stars Preview

Chicago Red Stars

Projected full strength lineup. Questionable starters in parentheses.

Chris’ 2016 NWSL Previews

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

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

Most believed Chicago would be improved going into 2015, but few (with yours truly as a notable exception) likely had the Red Stars finishing the season in second place. Or the club going unbeaten in its first seven matches. But 2015 was a big step forward in a long-term plan to get Chicago to the summit of the NWSL, and for a franchise that had been craving a playoff berth at this level for the longest time, it was sweet vindication for doing things their way. Big on youth and homegrown talent and not so keen on major international signings, the Red Stars built a youthful, exciting side that had bite to it defensively while shredding opposing rearguards at times. Topping a battle tested FCKC side in the playoffs proved a bit too much at this point, but the Red Stars are clearly a club on the up, especially with a long awaited move into Toyota Stadium full-time this season.

The really encouraging sign for the Red Stars is that they accomplished so much with a side so young last year. Chicago has really invested on young talent through both the draft as well as signings and trades, and all that raw talent came together into a team that was supremely impressive for the first half of the season. But the downside of that youth is that the gas tank was clearly on ‘E’ by August, as the Red Stars would win just one of their final eight games in the regular season. More experience should help with that a bit, but Dames still has to prove that he can get his still young side to peak late in the season to truly establish this club as title contenders come playoff time.

Coach

Few probably considered the Red Stars as legitimate title contenders heading into last season, though most agreed that the Chicago club was headed in the right direction after a promising 2014. But Rory Dames’ team made an immediate statement by beating Seattle in their first match and didn’t lose until June. The club was all but free and clear for a playoff spot by the time they started to lose steam in July, but even though Dames’ side went down painfully to local rivals FC Kansas City in the playoff semi-final, few would begrudge the coach for his efforts in building this squad to be such a contender after the ignominious start to their life in the NWSL in 2013.

From a side without a marquee attraction, Dames has drafted wisely and taken advantage of the likes of Christen Press being allocated their way after getting the short straw in the initial allocation process and has built a young and dynamic squad capable of beating anyone in the league. The Red Stars gained a reputation as being hard to beat despite not having the most talent early in Dames’ tenure, but the talent turnover has made the club more aesthetically appealing while being more threatening in front of goal as well. They couldn’t quite match the pace of Seattle offensively, last year, but were just a few goals off the best goals conceded mark in the league.

Dames and the Red Stars have largely done it in contrast to many other of the league’s upper echelon, eschewing international talent for young, homegrown draftees and shrewd trades and signings. The club only furthered its reputation for the above before last season after they managed to bring in both Danielle Colaprico and Sofia Huerta, both of whom played key roles for the club throughout their rookie campaigns. Lesser heralded players over the years such as Samantha Johnson and Michele Dalton have also been integral to the rise of the Red Stars as well, and Dames’ ability to get his roster to play as more than the sum of their parts has been one of his strongest assets as coach.

But for the first time in their NWSL history, the Red Stars enter a season with real expectation attached to their name. Given some of the turnover around the rest of the league and with title rivals in particular, anything other than the playoffs in 2016 would be disastrous for the club. With most of the core pieces from last season returning to Chicago, the bar might be pushed even higher than just a playoff appearance. Dames has proven more than a little adept at making do with limited resources and mastering the art of building a playoff contender from near scratch, but the question now is if he can lead his Red Stars to the summit when so many are expecting so much from the manager and his team.

Goalkeepers

If Chicago had a bit of an Achilles’ heel last season, it was in goal, where the club suffered from the lack of a true #1. Canadian Karina LeBlanc was well past it from the evidence of eight appearances she made for the club in her final season and was clearly the club’s second choice by the end of the season. Michele Dalton, little known outside of obsessives who had recognized her as a player who had gone overseas to master her craft after college, signed with the club in the preseason and was impressive enough for much of the season but displayed her limitations in a nervy and inconsistent showing against FC Kansas City in the playoff semi-final defeat.

It was apparent that Chicago needed to make an aggressive move for a new starting netminder if they wanted to truly contend for a title, and the Red Stars did just that in moving around some assets to acquire former Boston keeper Alyssa Naeher. Once a raw keeper with mountains of potential, Naeher has developed into a true #1 at club level and a player who may potentially duplicate that role with the USWNT at some point. Breakers’ supporters were livid for the most part by the decision to trade Naeher away, as the former Penn State keeper had kept many a scoreline respectable in front of some truly catastrophic backlines in her three seasons with the club. She’ll likely be thankful to not have to deal with such a leaky back four this season and is being relied upon as the missing piece of the puzzle for a potential title run by the Red Stars.

With LeBlanc’s retirement and the acquisition of Naeher, Dalton will slide back into the backup role and take the gloves when Naeher’s away on international duty. The former Wisconsin netminder made good use of the experience she gained abroad in the time she got as starter last season and certainly did a job for the club when called upon. But Dalton also made some costly errors in the playoff game and probably doesn’t have the upside to develop into much more than what she is now: a very good backup at this level. There’s no shame in that though, and Dalton still figures to be a very important player with Naeher likely to miss time due to USWNT call-ups.

Seattle University keeper Brianna Smallidge was the other keeper in camp that lasted longest before final cuts. She could be the emergency option when Naeher is away.

If you believe that the lack of a true #1 keeper was the thing that held Chicago back from a true title challenge last season, then the Red Stars have probably taken a big step towards that challenge by bringing in Naeher. It will be interesting to see how Naeher responds to the increased scrutiny considering she hasn’t played for a team in contention for honors in the NWSL thus far, having been marooned in Boston the past three seasons. Regardless, the Red Stars do have one of the league’s best one-two punches with Dalton backing up the newly acquired Naeher, making this a position of strength for the club.
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The WUSA Washington Freedom 15 Years On: Where are they now?

The 2003 championship team poses with the Founders Cup.

The 2003 championship team poses with the Founders Cup.

Fifteen years ago today the Washington Freedom hosted the first-ever women’s professional soccer match, taking on the Bay Area CyberRays at RFK Stadium. After my series earlier this year on the history of the Washington Freedom, I was asked if I could do a piece about where the players are now. Well, here you go – this seemed like an appropriate time to post. Thanks to Casey Zimny for some of this information.
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NWSL 2016 – Chris’ WNY Flash Preview

WNY Flash

Projected full strength lineup. Questionable starters in parentheses.

Chris’ 2016 NWSL Previews

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

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

Only the most strident WNY Flash supporter would have gone into last season expecting the club to rebound back into the playoffs after the 2014 disappointment, but most probably hoped for more than what they got, a dismal seventh place finish highlighted by a tepid offense and a leaky defense that conceded the second most goals in the league. A 5-1 massacre at Seattle on the opening weekend of the season set a tone, as the Flash would win just one of their first five matches. While the club’s young core showed some flashes at times, with players like Jaelene Hinkle, Sam Mewis, and Lynn Williams all looking like potential stars of the future in small slices, other parts of the team’s rebuild were bizarre to say the least. Early signings of players like Camille Kur and Ajara Nchout Njoya made little sense on paper, and the club went under a major shuffle midseason, with the likes of Lady Andrade and Michelle Heyman joining for the stretch run. The Flash weren’t embarrassing by any means, but they seldom looked like a side that would seriously challenge for the playoffs.

The offseason brought more upheaval, with manager Aaran Lines stepping down after a long stretch in charge of the club. Lines had brought great success to the team all the way through 2013, but, in all honesty, things had probably gotten a little bit stale with him at the helm. The roster also got another reset, as the team promptly got even younger, with players like Whitney Engen, Brittany Taylor, and Sydney Leroux all heading for the exit. Another infusion of youth has left just three players twenty-five years of age or older. Managing that group of youngsters this year is new boss Paul Riley, fresh off a disappointing two seasons with Portland. It’s perhaps a perfect marriage between two entities trying to stay relevant in the current pro WoSo landscape, but there are also signs that both may also be in increasing danger of being anachronisms from an era gone by.

Coach

This is truly the last chance saloon for Paul Riley. It seems unfathomable at first glance that a manager who was a penalty shootout away from a WPS title in 2011 may be on his last legs as a boss at this level, but this is likely Riley’s last chance at glory given the ugly ending of his tenure in Portland at the end of last season. Expected to meld a perennial championship contender in Portland, Riley’s two-year tenure instead was a paean to underachievement, his expensively assembled squad enduring the humiliation of a sixth place finish, a shocking seven points off the playoff places despite an armada of talent at the club’s disposal.

Or maybe that perception of talent was all in our and Riley’s heads. The veteran boss seemingly had a blinkered approach to team construction, casting his faith in favorites and veterans that either underachieved or couldn’t get off the training table. Seeing the likes of Stephanie Catley and Alex Morgan miss so much time injured didn’t exactly help matters, but neither did a faltering eye for new talent, with the likes of Genoveva Anonma and Sarah Robbins going down as some of the bigger international busts in league history. Riley also was all too willing to cast his lot with internationals who missed huge chunks of time at the WWC and all but ignored the draft, meaning the club was all too dependent on amateur reserves to fill gaps, which worked about as well as you’d expect.

It’s hard to tell if Riley’s learned his lesson in that regard, as no fewer than six of the club’s players are likely to be at the Rio Olympics in August. For a side that doesn’t look to be too deep on paper, that could be the kiss of death, and ironically, Riley may not totally be to blame considering he took over so deep into the offseason. But trading the likes of Mallory Weber even before she had suited up for the club officially has to be gnawing at Flash fans fearful that their old nemesis is too grounded in his ways to adapt to a shifting reality in the NWSL.

And that really is the rub with Riley’s marriage with the Flash. He worked well with an island of misfits in Philadelphia in WPS, crafting that oddly assembled team into a unit that was so much more than the sum of its parts. By contrast, when expectation shone heavily on him in Portland, Riley blanched, with his side looking less than their impressive resumes. The situation in Rochester is more of the former, but Flash fans will likely be wary of their new boss’ reputation as someone who has no time for youth and who plays hard and fast with his trusted favorites. Given Riley’s reputation for chopping and changing personnel, you wonder how many of these players are still going to be in the team’s colors come season’s end and how many draft picks the club will have next season given the former Thorns’ boss’ disdain for the process.

Goalkeepers

To put it bluntly, this position has never really been one of stability for the Flash over the course of three seasons. Seemingly having the position set for a long, long time with AD Franch in goal, the keeper’s knee injury in the preseason of 2014 set off a chain reaction that has seen a whopping six netminders used in Rochester over the past two seasons. To date, none have looked like a solution to a long-term problem, with Franch’s shadow still looming large over the goal for the Flash.

That number’s likely to increase by at least one this season, as the starter for most of last season, Chantel Jones will not play in the league this season. Jones perennially looked like a keeper too talented for a backup role but not good enough to build a club around in her time in the NWSL. Despite the highly touted Sabrina D’Angelo’s acquisition before last season, Jones ended up taking the bulk of the minutes and was first choice down the stretch, which didn’t exactly make much sense considering D’Angelo’s youth and the fact that the club’s playoff hopes were truly dead and buried by August. Despite playing in just thirteen matches, Jones was near the top of the errors leading to goals chart and likely didn’t figure into the club’s long-term plans before her departure.

On paper, that would likely put the starting job in the hands of D’Angelo once more. The Canadian appeared to have a leg up on the starting job in the early part of the season but was injured in mid-May and never really regained a great amount of momentum with a few notable errors blotting her copy in her rookie season. While D’Angelo still has a lot of upside and room to grow into her massive potential, the Canadian also may find herself elevated to the starting job at the Rio Olympics given Erin McLeod’s recent major knee injury. At the very least, D’Angelo should be on the plane to the tournament, meaning she could miss a handful of matches again this season which could further delay her gaining a firm grip on the starting job.

She’ll get competition for the starting job from the club’s new draftee, Britt Eckerstrom. Eckerstrom entered her senior season at Penn State as a solid keeper who had never quite put things together despite having a lot of potential to her name. However, everything clicked in 2015, even playing behind an amazingly young backline, as Eckerstrom turned into one of the nation’s top keepers while helping her club to a first national title. It’s hardly a surprise she was drafted after that senior season, though being the first keeper off the board in this class certainly comes with some expectations attached. Given Riley’s hesitancy in playing rookies heavily, Eckerstrom figures to begin the season as the backup in goal but should still see some action when D’Angelo’s away on international duty. And if she impresses when in goal, who knows if she’ll relinquish the starting job, even after the Olympics?

The club will also need a third goalkeeper when D’Angelo is away on international duty. Who’ll it be? Your guess is as good as mine, as the Flash haven’t had one in camp to the best of my knowledge.

Riley’s been more than willing to juggle goalkeepers in the past, and given the youth and inexperience at the position currently, he’ll probably do so again this season unless someone stakes a real claim for the job. Given that the back four in front of the keepers is pretty young in turn, there could be some real growing pains for D’Angelo and Eckerstrom this season. It will be very interesting to see how much of a leash Riley gives whoever wins the starting job considering both keepers look relatively evenly matched on paper.
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NWSL 2016 – Chris’ FC Kansas City Preview

FC Kansas City

Projected full strength lineup.

Chris’ 2016 NWSL Previews

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

5th –
6th – Houston Dash
7th –
8th – Boston Breakers
9th –
10th –

2015 may have been the end of an era for FC Kansas City, but it was an era that ended in style, as the club lifted their second straight league title. For the second straight season, FCKC wasn’t the best side over the course of the entire regular season, but they were the best when it counted, shocking Seattle in the final for the second straight season and doing it in a controlled fashion. The club dropped its first two games of the season in defense of their 2014 crown and endured some real patchy periods but finished out the regular season on a wave of momentum, and few could argue against them as deserved champions come season’s end, putting on a defensive clinic in two playoff wins.

Pulling off a three-peat looks almost impossible on paper to objective eyes. The club endures massive losses going into 2016, including losing five players who started the final against Seattle last season. That includes three-quarters of the backline, as well as offensive talismans Lauren Holiday and Amy Rodriguez. FCKC traded for Sydney Leroux in the offseason in the hopes that the mercurial forward might be the solution to scoring worries, but her pregnancy means the attack looks frighteningly threadbare going into the new season. It might be up to the defense to lead the team to the playoffs again. While there are personnel changes in abundance on defense as well, Andonovski’s made the most out of what he’s had in the past, which is a good thing, as Becky Sauerbrun’s the only elite defender on the roster.

The winds of change may make a third title unlikely, but FCKC can take heart in knowing most of the club’s playoff rivals have worries of their own. It still won’t make getting to the postseason any easier though, and the regular season here could be rockier than usual.

Coach

It seems a long, long time ago that people looked upon Vlatko Andonovski and regarded him and his team a crew of bottlers after repeated collapses in 2013, culminating with the infamous semi-final defeat to Portland in the playoffs. Rather than a kind of Waterloo, Andonovski and his club grew from that failure immensely and have since won back-to-back titles and the respect and admiration of the WoSo world in the process. Impressively, they’ve done it mostly with an eye-pleasing style of play, a defensively stout, pass and movement heavy style that has worked so well in the past two title triumphs.

Andonovski has also become the master of getting his team to peak late and just at the right time. It’s easy to forget that FCKC lost two games in a row to begin 2015 and went through a five match winless run entering into June that might have had some panicking. But the club finished the regular season with six matches unbeaten, conceding just two goals in the club’s final six matches. They would turn their home ground into a fortress at midseason, going unbeaten in their last six at home while losing just one of their final twelve matches, counting the playoffs. Those playoffs were a masterclass, with FCKC overpowering Chicago before again befuddling the regular season champion Reign.

Through three seasons, Andonovski’s done an incredible job of getting the most out of what he’s had available to him. Whether that’s showing a keen eye in the draft and getting gems like Mandy Laddish, Erika Tymrak, or Shea Groom or breathing new life into veterans written off by other clubs, Andonovski has specialized at building groups that are much more than the sum of their parts. His work in turning Yael Averbuch into a convincing center-back last season was remarkable, while Amy LePeilbet played like one of the best defenders in the league for much of the season.

And he’ll need all of that nous this season. The back-to-back title triumph was, in effect, the end of a very successful era, with many of the key contributors from last season’s championship either retiring or being moved on in the offseason. On paper, Andonovski’s made some shrewd moves and taken some real gambles, but on past evidence, he’ll be given every bit of benefit of the doubt possible. If he manages to get this group into title contention after the mass turnover and talent lost though, it’ll be his best coaching job by quite some margin.

Goalkeepers

A good defense starts with the player between the posts, and FC Kansas City benefitted from having Nicole Barnhart in goal for the entirety of the 2015 campaign. Barnhart has, truthfully, seen better days in goal and has seen her form erode a bit since the time when she was the USWNT’s undisputed #2 behind Hope Solo, but she’s still been a strength for FCKC in goal and has become one of women’s soccer’s most decorated goalkeepers at club level having added another winner’s medal to her tally following last season’s triumph. At the age of thirty-four, some wondered if Barnhart would hang her gloves up following last season given that she had nothing left to prove at club level and that her international career was all but over.

However, Barnhart assuaged those fears and re-signed with FCKC in the offseason and will continue on for at least one more season in goal with the club. Her experience and skill are invaluable for the club, even if she is slowing down a bit, and those assets could be even more important this season as the club has to replace multiple starting defenders from last year’s superb unit. Most suspect that Barnhart won’t be adding to her tally of winner’s medals this season with FCKC, but if the club is to get anywhere near a chance of even being able to defend their crown in the playoffs, they’ll likely need the veteran to be near her best this year.

For the second straight season, the backup will be Katelyn Rowland. All things considered, Rowland probably played in more games than expected last season considering Barnhart was with the club the entire season. Most frequently used when the club was having two games in a short span of time, Rowland didn’t embarrass herself as a rookie, but she also looked nowhere near being able to be a #1 for a title chasing team in her brief time as the starter for FCKC. With fewer midweek games in 2016, you wonder how much more play Rowland will get in place of Barnhart. More than likely, her job will be to soak everything up like a sponge in an effort to boost her to the #1 role when Barnhart does step away from the game.

This isn’t the best goalkeeping situation in the league, but the stability means you know what you’re getting for the most part. Barnhart’s experience is going to be crucial given the changes on the backline, and she’s still a good enough keeper to help the team onto the playoffs if everyone else does their part. Rowland’s a better backup than some of her contemporaries in the league, but FCKC probably won’t need her that much in competition given Barnhart’s durability over the years.
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