NWSL Preview 2015 – Boston Breakers

Projected Full Strength Lineup

Possible Lineup During Women’s World Cup (Cat Whitehill potentially gone as FOX commentator.)

Other Previews/Projections

1st –
2nd –
3rd – FC Kansas City
4th – Portland

5th – Sky Blue FC
6th – Washington
7th –
8th – Houston
9th –

It’s not been a particularly peachy offseason for the Boston Breakers. The club has suffered through a wave of retirements, a necessary trade of one of their remaining allocated players, the move of Lianne Sanderson back to England, two of their Brazilian signings getting nixed through a long-term residency, and the general mocking laughter from pundits at-large after the club gave up two high picks to Chicago for the draft rights of Stephanie McCaffrey. This coming off a season that saw them escape the basement only thanks to Houston imploding down the stretch. Boston ended up a whopping fifteen points out of the playoff places in eighth place at season’s end.

Instead of picking second and likely taking hometown product Sam Mewis, Boston had insanely traded away their top first round pick to Sky Blue FC for Lisa De Vanna the previous offseason. The same De Vanna who barely registered an impression with Boston and who was traded to Washington in midseason. At least Boston managed to score without the Australian, finishing with the fifth highest goals scored total in the league, netting one more than playoff bound Washington. Though with big scoring Jazmine Reeves and Lianne Sanderson also gone, it almost feels like the Breakers are starting from scratch on offense.

And the defense, oh, the defense. Fifty-three goals allowed and a seeming revolving door of incompetence. Boston made a very aggressive move to rectify those problems by trading for Kassey Kallman. But other than that, not much, with a trade for Amy Barczuk the only other notable move. And she may end up in midfield anyway. If Kallman isn’t the solution, it could be another long season for the Boston defense.

Coach/Tactics

Tom Durkin probably wasn’t near the top of many’s shortlist when he was named full-time head coach of the club before the 2014 season. And it was very much a trial by fire last season, as some of Durkin’s moves were ingenious (essentially starting all the reserves against Portland in a stunning win), while others were insane (starting Courtney Jones at center-back at the start of the season). Boston wasn’t exactly the league’s most consistent side, and the end result was Durkin’s club finishing near the bottom of the league having scored plenty and conceded more.

The good news for the Breakers is that they look to be almost untouched by the Women’s World Cup, with the only two players likely to be gone being Alyssa Naeher in goal and Cat Whitehill (as a commentator for FOX) on defense. Naeher is a big, big hit though, as she kept the team afloat many a time last season, with understudy Jami Kranich having not played a single second of professional ball yet. That loss will put pressure on a backline that is still going to be three-fourths returnees for much of the season, which is worrying considering how badly Boston played defensively.

Kassey Kallman and Cat Whitehill are the only two locks on paper, with Kallman potential filling a troublesome void at left-back, though she seems far more valuable in the middle. The club has a lot of center-back options but few true full-backs. Mollie Pathman seems like first choice at left-back, while Julie King can play on the right or in the center, with the former looking more likely early this year. King could replace Whitehill during the WWC, though Amy Barczuk is another contender. Kristie Mewis and Maddy Evans can provide cover at full-back, while Bianca Sierra could see time out wide when she gets back. Still, for all the options, there aren’t a lot of concrete answers on paper.

Further up the pitch, playing with a double pivot seems smartest to ease pressure off the defense. Durkin’s identified Brazilian Bia as a player who could play a deeper role in midfield, though she’s not the biggest at 5’5″. Amy Barczuk could solve some of the problems with size alongside Bia, while Maddy Evans is another contender for the role by the Brazilian. They’ll be supporting what looks like a very attack minded front four on paper.

Stephanie McCaffrey is a good bet to spearhead the line early, as Boston didn’t spend a fortune to take her and leave her on the bench. Morgan Marlborough and Nkem Ezurike are big Plan B types who might be used in a two-front partnership playing off of McCaffrey. Behind the center-forward, the club may use a band of three. Kristie Mewis is a no-brainer at left wing and will be looking for a breakout season. More up in the air are AMC and AMR, with Rafinha and Ketlen unknowns at this level. If everything clicks, this group could be formidable. If it doesn’t, Durkin will be scrambling to whip up some decent alternatives from his bench.

Goalkeepers

At the beginning of the NWSL’s existence in 2013, Boston’s goalkeeping situation was a borderline shambles. A few seasons later, and the Breakers being able to boast Alyssa Naeher in goal may be one of their few true advantages in comparison to their league rivals.

Naeher returned from Europe in the middle of 2013 and has since been the Breakers’ saving grace in between the pipes. That goes double for last season, in which Naeher was repeatedly victimized by her inept backline, forcing her to stand on her head and keep the club from being humiliated on a weekly basis. Staring at the basic stats for Naeher, you might get the impression that she struggled in goal. Actually seeing her performances though reveals a goalkeeper whose reputation is deservedly surging. Those performances haven’t gone unnoticed at international level either, with Naeher the early favorite to be the U.S.’ third goalkeeper at this year’s WWC. If she keeps up the form of the last eighteen months, she may rise higher up the ladder come the next WWC in France.

Should Naeher make the final USWNT roster for the WWC, that leaves the gloves in the hands of second-year player Jami Kranich. It’s hard to say too much about Kranich, as she failed to play a single minute as a rookie, as Naeher was with Boston all season and in fantastic form all season despite being blitzed by opposing offenses. Kranich faces a big burden being thrown right into the deep end for a club that might still be shaky on its backline and now has the added worries on offense after the mass shakeup in attack.

If Naeher goes to Canada, the third goalkeeper is likely to be Northeastern’s Paige Burnett, one of the best goalkeepers undrafted in the past year’s rookie class. Burnett is a quality stopper who benefitted from a great senior season for the Huskies and has no small degree of upside. She has the potential to work her way into a main backup role for someone with good coaching and a little luck.

Naeher gives Boston a little hope defensively. And they might need it if the defense doesn’t come around in front of her. It’s anybody’s guess as to how the club will cope with her absence if it comes to that with Kranich totally unproven.

Defenders

Let’s just come out with it: Boston was utterly incompetent on defense last season. The Breakers gave up over two goals a game and gave up multiple goals in eighteen of twenty-four matches. The team kept two clean sheets all season. It’s got to get better this season, because it’s hard to imagine it getting any worse.

Second-year player Kassey Kallman was one of the league’s best rookies last year for FC Kansas City and a major part of their title run. Which made Kallman’s trade away from FCKC so shocking. Boston paid a heavy price to get the former Florida State center-back, but it could pay off with Kallman looking like one of the league’s best young defenders last year. Kallman played left-back most of the time for the champions last year, but she’s more of a natural center-back, which will probably suit the Breakers just fine, as they need a strong partner to team up with veteran Cat Whitehill in central defense. The hope has to be that Kallman will be a solution at central defense for a long time, and Kallman keeping up last year’s form will be key if Boston is to improve defensively.

The Breakers will be hoping they can squeeze another season out of veteran center-back Cat Whitehill. At thirty-three, there’s little doubt that Whitehill is on the downswing of a long and storied career, but she’s still very much first choice in Boston in central defense as of the start of the 2015 season. At this point though, Whitehill’s pace has declined to the point that she’s going to have to be protected by a fleet-footed center-back partner. Though declining physically, Whitehill’s experience and leadership is going to be critical for a backline still in flux. Given the shakeup offensively, Boston is likely going to need a much better showing on defense to survive, and Whitehill is probably going to have to roll back the years again if that is to happen. The veteran also may miss a handful of matches while off to commentate at the WWC for FOX.

Likely starting at right-back this season will be veteran Julie King, who has now become a mainstay with the club. King, a physical defender, was a constant on the backline save for the month of July, which she missed. While King was probably just as guilty as the other members of Boston’s back four, Durkin’s faith in the former Auburn defender appears to be unshaken given the fact that the Breakers didn’t really make any big moves to address a need at full-back. King also played center-back in 2014, but with Kallman’s addition, you suspect King is moving back to full-back unless she can displace Whitehill in the lineup.

A less heralded acquisition who may be no less important to Boston’s improvement defensively may be Amy Barczuk, acquired from the WNY Flash for a second round pick in January’s draft. Barczuk spent most of her time last season as a reserve for the Flash and was shuttled around the pitch for the club, seeing both in the middle of the pitch and occasionally on the flank. Barczuk seems a bit miscast for a wide player though, and she’ll probably need to make an impact centrally for Boston this year. If Kallman stays at left-back, Barczuk could get a look at partnering Whitehill in the middle at center-back. If Kallman moves inside though, Barczuk is certainly a candidate to add some steel to the midfield considering the lack of depth on paper there.

Second-year player Mollie Pathman may take on an increased role this season after doing a little bit of everything for the Breakers last year. That included stints in midfield, up front, and on the backline. The former Duke player played at left-back at youth international level and in a stint in Cyprus in the UEFA Women’s Champions League this past year, and that’s probably her role to begin the 2015 season. If Kallman slides back into a left-back role, Pathman will probably have to make do as a reserve forward off the bench. She’s not going to be scoring too many goals, but Pathman’s service from the flank makes for a good option for lumping crosses into the box for target forwards as a plan B if the Breakers are chasing the game.

Boston will be hoping for continued growth from center-back Rachel Wood, who went from the club’s reserve team to its full roster by mid-July. Wood was just one of many wheeled out by the Breakers to try and cure their chronic defensive woes and didn’t do badly for herself considering she wasn’t on the active roster at the beginning of the season. The towering UC Irvine alum also got involved offensively with a goal and an assist to her name. An influx of new talent though means that Wood will have to continue to shine in the lineup to avoid being caught up in the numbers for a Boston side desperate for better defense.

Mexican international Bianca Sierra was one of the most unlikely success stories going into last season, making Washington’s full roster despite being undrafted in January. Sierra didn’t particularly impress as a senior in college at Auburn, but she did well enough with her chance in Washington to get major minutes in the Spirit defense early on. She’d be in Boston by June though via trade, and settled in as a starter on the right side of the Breakers’ beleaguered backline before becoming a bit more of a marginal player towards the end of the season. The Mexican international can play all across the backline as a utility defender, but it remains to be seen what her role with Boston will be this year, as she stands to miss much of the season on international duty.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. It’s not quite that bad in Boston, but the extent of the improvements to the backline for the Breakers in the offseason was adding Kallman (and Barczuk if she doesn’t play as a defensive midfielder). There’s no question that Kallman will help this unit, but Boston replaced one defender when they probably should’ve replaced more. It’s difficult seeing the Breakers match last season’s awful defensive pace, but they’re still one of the league’s worst units on paper.

Midfielders

This group took some major hits in the offseason, with Heather O’Reilly’s trade to FCKC and Lianne Sanderson moving back to England. Add in losses of solid depth players like Courtney Jones and Joanna Lohman, and you’ve got some serious questions going into the new year. The club’s plan to hoard Brazilians for their international slots took a decided blow with the announcement that Brazil’s WNT would be holding a residency through the 2016 Summer Olympics, meaning new signings Andressa Alves and Francielle would not be joining up after all.

If this club has a cornerstone right now, it’s Kristie Mewis, who suddenly finds herself burdened with the responsibility of being this team’s shining star after the exodus of players in the offseason. Mewis fell out of favor at international level after Tom Sermanni’s sacking and will inevitably be trying to get herself back in the mix for the 2016 Summer Olympics by starring this season for the Breakers. Thought of as a potential #10 coming out of college, Mewis has instead been frequently used as a left-winger in Boston. That’s probably her role again in 2015, though Mewis could also end up at left-back if the team is in a defensive pinch. With all the offensive questions though, Mewis may be most needed in the attack this year.

The Brazilian WNT residency may have robbed the Breakers of a couple of midfielders, but it did allow them to add some new Brazilians not in the residency program. One such Brazilian is Rafinha, last of Ferroviaria, one of Brazil’s top clubs. The new addition was her last club’s third leading scorer, having netted five goals eleven matches, though one wonders about the level of competition. With tons of competition for playing time in the Boston attack, Rafinha will have to settle quickly and hit the ground running if she wants to establish herself in the Breakers first team. Durkin has mentioned the Brazilian as a possible #10, and considering the unproven nature of the forwards, Rafinha will have to be spot on in running the show for Boston to thrive.

The Breakers have lacked for a true defensive midfield stopper for a while now, so they’ll be hoping that Brazilian signing Bia can get the job done. A veteran who has stayed in Brazil for just about all of her career outside of a stint playing for NAIA side Southern Nazarene University, Bia will be hoping to function as the club’s link player between defense and attack this season. At the age of twenty-nine, Bia doesn’t have as much upside as some of the other Brazilians here and may be a bit small for a true destroyer at 5’5, meaning Durkin may opt for a double pivot with someone like Barczuk alongside her in midfield.

A true sleeper to watch out for is rookie Stephanie Verdoia, who was a scoring machine for mid-major Seattle University over the past four seasons. Though Verdoia played as a forward for the Redhawks, she figures to take on a more withdrawn role as a professional in all likelihood. Verdoia got a call up to the U.S. U23 team recently and was a clutch performer with Seattle with the ability to unleash some mouthwatering passes to her Redhawk teammates. Obviously, it’s a pretty big step up in class, but Verdoia has a ton of upside and could work herself into major minutes as the season moves along.

Maddy Evans will be looking for an increased role in the team this season after flitting in and out of the starting lineup last year. Evans was once an end of the bench player who stuck around on hustle and has worked herself into a valuable piece of the puzzle for the Breakers. Evans actually netted three assists last season and can play in a variety of midfield roles but has been talked about as an option in defense early this season if Julie King is still slowed by injury. Evans seldom went ninety minutes in her starts last year though, and there’s a chance her best role may still be as an energy player off the bench.

The Breakers have touted their developmental pyramid and reaped some of the benefits of that pyramid when reserve defender Rachel Wood stepped in last season and acquitted herself well towards the end of the campaign. Brazilian Suzane Pires will be looking to do likewise this season. Pires is used to the brand of football in the U.S. having played collegiate ball at tiny Southern Connecticut State and is obviously familiar with the Breakers after playing with the reserves last year. She’ll likely scrap for minutes as an attacking option in midfield or up front. With so much up in the air in the attack, some good performances should see her with every chance of locking down major minutes.

It’s Mewis’ show to run at this point, and the hometown heroine is going to have to make The Leap this season if Boston is to get a sniff of the playoffs. Otherwise, much of the club’s fortunes rest with its large Brazilian contingent. If Rafinha and Bia make the move to this level easily, Durkin could look like a genius. If they’re flops, the Breakers are in big trouble.

Forwards

It was just Boston’s luck that as they had seemingly found a potential long-term replacement for Sydney Leroux that Jazmine Reeves announced her retirement after one season of play. Reeves looked like a potential star at times for Boston last season, so her loss is a hammer blow for the Breakers. Needing a replacement, Boston paid over the odds to acquire Stephanie McCaffrey on draft day. There’s a massive amount of pressure on the Boston College grad’s shoulders given the price paid, and given the makeup of the rest of the frontline, the Breakers could be hurting if their rookie doesn’t acclimatize to this level quickly.

Much depends on the development of Stephanie McCaffrey, who the Breakers essentially paid a king’s ransom for in this year’s NWSL Draft, giving up two picks to grab the Boston College star. McCaffrey got a taste of a full USWNT camp in January, but few would argue that 2014 was the best for the former Eagle, as her attacking numbers dipped noticeably from her totals in a banner 2013 season. McCaffrey netted just six goals and seven assists despite taking fifty-nine shots, and her efficiency numbers will need to improve markedly if she’s to fulfill her pro potential. The new Breaker does have a tendency to make those attackers around her much better given evidence at collegiate level, and her new side will be hoping for much of the same given how unproven the rest of the attacking corps is.

Katie Schoepfer is probably the closest thing Boston has to a sure scorer at this point, albeit, only to a certain extent. Schoepfer could play until the end of time and net around five goals every season. She did most of her scoring in July last year, scoring in three straight appearances for the Breakers. Schoepfer’s not a ninety minute player most of the time and may have more value as a trusted sub off the bench, but given the lack of proven offensive options here, she might be in line for some major minutes early. There are some indications that Schopefer might drop a little bit deeper into an attacking midfield role with some of the club’s additions, though Schoepfer is comfortable leading the line as well.

First round draft pick of 2014 Nkem Ezurike will be looking for a bigger contribution after largely being overshadowed by the departed Reeves last year. Ezurike made just six starts in attack for the Breakers, and, perhaps more worryingly, took just seven shots in a little over five hundred minutes played. The former Michigan star is on the bubble for Canada’s WWC squad, and one wonders if her missing out on most of the domestic season in the NWSL would stunt her growth as a player. The pressure is clearly on the big Canadian forward, and with seemingly a direct competitor for the target forward role in Morgan Marlborough arrived in town, Ezurike’s time in Boston could be running short if she doesn’t show some of the scoring prowess that prodded the Breakers into taking her early in the 2014 draft.

There are new faces aplenty besides McCaffrey, with second-year player Morgan Marlborough among the biggest (literally and figuratively). Marlborough will be looking to prove that she’s more than just a makeweight in the O’Reilly-Kallman trade that shook up both Boston and her former club. A giant target forward, Marlborough failed to make a big impression as a rookie with the champions, scoring just twice in nine appearances, most of them cameos off the bench. With Sarah Hagen’s signing, the writing was on the wall for the Santa Clara alum, though she falls into a bit of a similar situation in Boston, with the club already possessing Canadian behemoth Nkem Ezurike. With Ezurike potentially away for the WWC though, Marlborough could at least have a chance to show what she can do with extended minutes if given the opportunity.

Compatriot Ketlen was signed earlier in the offseason and should be with the Breakers for all of 2015 after being passed up for the WNT’s residency camp. It’s a signing with no small share of uncertainty attached to it. Ten goals in eighteen matches in the Brazilian league? Not bad. Zero goals in five matches in Sweden with Vittsjo? Not so good. One goal in ten youth world cup matches for Brazil? Also not the most inspiring sign. It’s more than a little obvious that Ketlen’s a little green, and that may not be the best thing on a squad without any real proven goalscorers at this level on it.

It’s all in McCaffrey’s hands (err…feet). If she can deliver a scoring punch, the Breakers may have a chance of moving up in the standings. If not, the club is going to have to scrape goals from elsewhere, which looks like a problem considering the composition of the rest of their frontline. There’s some intrigue in the likes of Ketlen, but on the whole, the rank and file of the strikers here look like replacement level players and journeymen.

Outlook

Boston is almost universally being picked to prop up the table in 2015, and it’s not hard to see why. Besides Naeher, Kallman, and Mewis, the Breakers are woefully short on blue-chip talent. The Brazilian contingent obviously could boost Boston in a major way, but you also wonder why the likes of Rafinha and Bia haven’t made a breakthrough to a bigger league by now if they were top-flight prospects. Ketlen and Pires are still young enough for a potential big breakthrough, but they’re definitely getting tossed into the deep end this year.

And if Boston’s Brazilians sink rather than swim, the rest of the club is probably settling on the floor of the ocean with them. The Breakers are going to have the advantage of continuity during the WWC, but as the Atlanta Beat of 2011 can attest to, that counts for little if you lack the overall talent to compete with your league rivals. It’s probably not going to get that bad for Boston, but it’d be astonishing if this club made it to the playoffs. Given their deficiencies, Boston probably isn’t getting out of the bottom third.

The Breakers and their supporters should probably temper their expectations and not make any panic moves, but if some degree of forward progress isn’t evident by the end of the season, it might be time to start from scratch in 2016.

Prediction: 9th

2 thoughts on “NWSL Preview 2015 – Boston Breakers

  1. Soccer Mom

    McCaffrey needs someone to play with. Her 1v1 skills are excellent but only if at least one of the defenders is occupied elsewhere and if someone else offers her an out so she doesn’t have to attack over and over again. I hope they find some one. Maybe they already have in Marlborough (Is she fast?)

    Reply

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