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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Likely pleasing owner Merritt Paulson, the 2013 NWSL season essentially ended up being all about his Thorns by the time the confetti had been cleaned up from Rochester in late August. His side was able to lift the trophy after a season that had featured a little bit of everything. There was player grousing, fan grousing (including a rather pointed tifo aimed at head coach Cindy Cone), roster shakeups, and untimely injuries as the league’s glamour club was a constant source of drama. Predicted to walk away with the title in some quarters, the Thorns instead found themselves having to win two playoff games on the road to lift the league title when all was said and done. The mission was accomplished but not without some serious bumps in the road.
It proved to all be a bit too much for Cone, who resigned after the season. Into the breach steps Paul Riley, back at the top level after a season away. Riley immediately proved himself to be one of this level’s top bosses by masterminding Philadelphia’s rise from obscurity to title contenders in WPS but also gained a reputation for being unable to seal the deal, getting crushed by FC Gold Pride before a heartbreaking penalty defeat to the WNY Flash in 2011. It’s a reputation that may have cost him a shot at coaching the USWNT, but Riley certainly looks to have a good chance of setting things right this season. The new boss has turned over much of the club’s insufficient depth, while adding two of the world’s best players in Nadine Angerer and Vero. Again, the Thorns figure to be in the headlines in the NWSL in 2014.
Riley inherits a talented squad, but he also inherits massive expectations after Portland’s title triumph last season. It shouldn’t be taken for granted that this may be the first time Riley’s come into a season with his team expected to come away with a title after operating as underdogs during his two-year tenure with Philadelphia in WPS. A brilliant motivator, Riley has nonetheless made use of a siege mentality in his past seasons at this level, something that plainly isn’t to be taken seriously here given such a talented set of players he has at his disposal. It’s hard to envision Riley co-existing with U.S. Soccer’s meddlesome executives that canned Tom Sermanni, but his getting the job in the future probably depends on his ability to show he can finally win the big one. It’s something that will likely be weighing on him this season, and the experienced boss has already shaken the side up, likely to ensure the hunger to win a title is still there after 2013′s victory.
The Thorns’ new boss has preached attractive, passing football for his regime, but having watched his Philadelphia side, you wonder if he’s just paying lip service to the league’s neediest fans. While the Independence weren’t a bunch of long ball merchants, calling them the second coming of Barcelona isn’t an accurate portrayal of a side who made use of the athletic front-running of Amy Rodriguez and Tasha Kai. It’s difficult envisioning too much tiki-taka here early either, considering injuries and absences that will loom large early. Considering the likely starting midfield features Allie Long and Sinead Farrelly, both Riley favorites who underachieved last year, as well as the young Mana Shim and Amber Brooks, the onus might be on the center forwards to do the business. That’ll probably suit Christine Sinclair fine, the Canadian probably working best as the focal point of the attack, which she’ll have to be until Alex Morgan and Vero are on the pitch here.
Things figure to change markedly once the club gets all its pieces in place. Steph Catley will probably allow the club to open up the offense a little with her forward runs from left-back, while Tobin Heath on the left flank and Vero in the playmaking position should ease Portland’s midfield from being a land of questions to one of the league’s premier units. An attacking triangle of Vero, Sinclair, and Morgan sounds like the stuff of nightmares for opposing defenses. But as Sinclair and Morgan’s struggles in gelling together last season show, football is not a game played on paper, and the best laid plans can sometimes go awry. Still, you’d bet on Riley getting it right once he has everyone available to him. It’s just a matter of bridging that gap now, something not made particularly easy by injuries and absences for various reasons.
Team Fantasy Rankings – Round One
3. FC Kansas City
4. Western New York
6. Sky Blue FC
1. Barnhart (FCKC) – Opposition isn’t a slam dunk, but she’s got the best defense around her. Premium pick despite allocation spot.
2. Angerer (POR) – I don’t quite trust injury hit defense, but I trust Houston offense even less.
3. Solo (SEA) – Would be wary of using allocation slot on her until defense proves its worth.
4. Williams (WNY) – Backline missing Williamson (suspension), facing improved Spirit on the road, so be cautious.
5. Harris (WSH) – Better options elsewhere, but decent as a differential pick.
1. Dunn (WSH) – Playing in attack probably, so she has to be in your team, even with allocated status. May not go seventy for clean sheet points though.
2. Foord (SBFC) – Worth a punt for possibility she plays up front. Still has value as full-back though.
3. Robinson (FCKC) – Fantasy’s best defender last year on league’s best defense. If she isn’t on your team, what are you thinking?
4. Moros (POR) – Toss up between her and Marshall, but she’ll get forward more in a match with clean sheet potential despite club’s injuries.
5. Taylor (WNY) – Most stable of WNY’s defenders and always an assist threat.
1. Holiday (FCKC) – Duh. Not sure she’s worth captaining in round one, but she has to be in your team after last season.
2. Tymrak (FCKC) – Killer form in preseason and should have more targets to aim for in attack this year.
3. Shim (POR) – Call it a hunch. Should be plenty of room out wide with Edwards, Bock central for Houston.
4. Fishlock (SEA) – Would rank higher against soft Boston midfield but coming off World Cup qualifiers in Europe so may not go the distance.
5. Matheson (WSH) – Probably the safest option if you believe in a Spirit uprising.
1. Sinclair (POR) – My round one captain. Will be focal point of offense until Morgan/Vero get on the pitch, meaning point opportunities galore.
2. Leroux (SEA) – Not sure she’ll go ninety, but you get the feeling she’ll be eager to score against her former club.
3. Kerr (WNY) – Was lightning in a bottle last season and probably will have room to work against whoever Spirit’s left-back is.
4. McDonald (POR) – Differential pick if you really like Portland or want to get away from Sinclair. Was on fire in preseason.
5. Ohai (HOU) – I don’t really buy into the Houston offense right now, but I’d tip her as the one you want if you think Dash can exploit Thorns’ defensive issues.
Contrary to just about every other returning NWSL club this season, the headlines for SBFC this offseason were made off the pitch this year. And the lede isn’t necessarily an appealing one either. As whispers of a potential tie-up with MLS side Red Bull New York and their deep pockets rumbled, a long pessimistic fanbase likely dreamed of a bright future at Red Bull Arena in Harrison and glamour signings that have been missing for so long for the inaugural WPS champions. Alas, the negotiations came to nothing, and an air of doom and gloom settled back over last season’s league leaders for a good chunk of the first half of the season. With attendance lagging, seemingly for the umpteenth straight season, and no big name arrivals in the offseason, it’s not hard to see why supporters would be coming into the new season a bit deflated.
But should they be? Granted, this doesn’t look like a team with the heft and staying power to compete for a league title, but they were very much the match of anyone last season. Until injuries and fatigue hit anyway. Sky Blue FC entered last season with a pretty young squad and paid the price late as attrition saw it dip back towards the pack before going out tamely in the opening round of the playoffs. The good news is the promising defense should return intact and has added a potential star in Cami Levin. The bad news is the midfield lacks depth, and the situation up front is concerning with the club having lost Lisa De Vanna and Danesha Adams without replacing them with proven scorers at this level. Head coach Jim Gabarra will likely be banking on his stacked defense proving to be the class of a league where most rivals are sweating bullets over their own backlines going into the new season.
Jim Gabarra’s been at this for as long as anyone in the women’s game, having served as head coach of the Washington Freedom before making the short move to Jersey. He looked to be working some real magic for the first half of last year, driving an unfancied SBFC side to the top of the table. Even he couldn’t make that magic last though, and it’ll be on him to get more consistent and lasting displays out of a club that faded down the stretch last season. The defense won’t be much to worry about if everyone stays healthy and plays to their potential, with depth for days. Gabarra’s going to have to engineer some attacking power though, as relying on rookies Maya Hayes and Jonelle Filigno to support the retuning Monica Ocampo is a dicey proposition. The real question is whether Gabarra is willing to move Kelley O’Hara and Caitlin Foord into the attack full-time considering the club’s defensive depth.
Relatively speaking, SBFC may be one of the league’s most interesting team’s tactically this season thanks to the sheer number of possibilities they may have in terms of combinations on the pitch. At full strength, Christie Rampone, CoCo Goodson, and Kendall Johnson are seemingly locks, but it remains to be seen where the fourth defender is going to come from. Kelley O’Hara can certainly play at full-back, but preseason experimentation had her lining up at right-back, perhaps pointing towards where she’ll line up regularly this season. If that’s the case, it may be a case of Caitlin Foord stretching teams wide in the final third on the right flank, with O’Hara making underlapping runs inside towards goal, where she can put some of her offensive ability to use.
Further forward, it would seem that Katy Freels and Sophie Schmidt in midfield and Monica Ocampo in attack are locks for starting spots, but nothing else is likely written in stone. Ashley Nick may be needed in midfield for defensive purposes and to help free Schmidt up with her forays forward. SBFC could just as easily go 4-4-2 with Foord and O’Hara on opposite flanks as traditional wingers, with Freels and Schmidt in the middle as the central mids, playing behind Ocampo and whoever’s in form at center forward. SBFC would be ceding the middle of the park in some ways, but it might be the best way to kickstart an offense that might struggle early on. There are plenty of options for Gabarra, it’s just a matter of striking the right combination now.