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:
1) Seattle will be fun to watch
Really, once they got Megan Rapinoe back, the Reign were last year, despite their record because Rapinoe in and of herself plays attractive soccer. But pair her up with Kim Little and an emerging Sydney Leroux, and look out NWSL. Little, by the way, scored 81 goals for Arsenal and is just 23, so the act that she looked as good as she did (even coming off an international appearance in mid-week halfway across the word) shouldn’t be surprising. Stephanie Cox also looked very good with some international experience this winter, and Jess Fishlock (now getting help from Keelin Winters) can go back to a more natural holding midfield role instead of trying to do everything as she had to last year. The biggest questions are now in the back, but they still have Hope Solo behind them, you might remember. It would appear that the Reign did their best to make the Memorial Stadium pitch wider, but it’s still very narrow, and their Field Turf blend seems very fast. Hopefully, attendance will improve if this team keeps winning.
2) Portland and Paul Riley are going to have to survive
We knew Portland would be shorthanded to start the season, but it was still a little jarring when the Thorns named only three field players to their bench for the opener against Houston. But in a league where no one has depth (in an effort to save money), lining up without Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, Vero Boquette, Rachel Van Hollebeke (injured Thursday for the USWNT), and young Australian international Stephanie Catley (who is staying in Australia through the Asian Cup next month), well that’s quite a team not in attendance.
Yet Portland get the result anyway against a fired up Houston team. Nadine Angerer looked every bit the part of a top international goalkeeper, Allie Long made a case for Player of the Week honors including scoring the game-winner, while a very young defense, including right back Courtney Niemiec, signed earlier in the week after going undrafted out of La Salle. Third-round pick Emily Menges (out of Georgetown) also played well, but the question will be whether Paul Riley can continue to throw enough smoke and mirrors at the league until he gets his full cast of characters in order.
3) Bravo, Houston
The Dash were able to get a great crowd of 8,097 for a non-Alex Morgan Portland team, and Houston likely deserved a better fate on the balance of play, Ella Masar (when she wasn’t fouling Angerer) a threat to score on several occasions with her workrate. Mexican international Arianna Romero (who actually grew up in Arizona) was impressive at right back, and the Dash have enough pieces to be competitive in the NWSL, especially when they get the likes of Whitney Engen, Meghan Klingenberg, and Aya Sameshima on board.
4) Still a Mystery in Washington
The Spirit and Flash seemed to begin where last season ended, and that’s good news for Western New York … and bad news for Washington. The Spirit came out in a high line and looked every bit as disorganized as they did last season at times, and were picked apart often enough to concede three times and almost a few more. Washington has much more talent than when it was in its spiral last season, so hopefully they’ll figure it out. At least the coach was paying attention. Meanwhile, it wasn’t hard to predict Kim Little would star, but Vicky Losada might have been a little more difficult. But Aaran Lines already had one Spaniard, and Losada came highly recommended, so maybe two goals shouldn’t have been that strange in her opener. The Flash were dominant without Abby Wambach (who somehow fractured an orbital bone, but finished the USWNT match on Thursday), and Carli Lloyd clearly not 100 percent after her national team duty over the past week.
5) We Needed At Least One Draw
Kansas City also seemed to pick up where it left off last season, playing extremely attractive soccer, but without a killer instinct to put an opponent away after they’ve dominated possession. Amy Rodriguez looked very good in her return, so maybe she’ll be the goalscorer they need to complement Lauren Holiday and Erica Tymrak, but FCKC still had to settle for a point at home against Sky Blue. It’s easy to remember that Sky Blue pretty much collapsed at the end of last season, but we forget how well they played prior to that. The backline seemed very organized, even without Christie Rampone, although they didn’t generate a heck of a lot of offense (4 shots, 3 by goal scorer Katy Freels). Still, good road point.