Seattle’s dominated the headlines, but the Sounders don’t figure to have it all their way on the road to a W-League title, with numerous challengers lining up to lift the trophy come July including a resurgent Pali Blues side and defending champions Atlanta. In contrast with the rival WPSL Elite league, most of the power for this year’s W-League is concentrated out West, though the likes of Atlanta, Ottawa, and D.C. United Women certainly won’t be going down without a fight. Whether the bottom tier of the league can keep it respectable against the W-League’s big guns remains to be seen.
The Fury looked to be setting themselves up for a coronation in the W-League last year after rolling over the competition in the regular season and making it to the final against Atlanta. But Ottawa’s lack of competition in the erstwhile Central Conference showed as the Fury were dissected by their opponents in the title game, slumping to a humiliating 6-1 reverse. The Fury at least know they’ll be back in the Final Four this year as tournament hosts, though they’d be overwhelming favorites to return even if they weren’t. 2011 W-League MVP Mallory Outerbridge ripped apart opposing defenses and returns to the fold again, while UConn’s Melissa Busque and Jessica Shufelt also give this team some more attacking class. The Fury also managed to poach Canadian international goalkeeper Cynthia Leblanc from Laval, adding depth to a team already containing standouts Jasmine Phillips and Audrey Bernier-Larose. Formidable and hungry, Ottawa should again be the class of the Central Conference, but do they have what it takes to get over the top?
D.C. United Women
One of an emerging number of MLS satellite clubs in women’s leagues, D.C. United’s women’s outfit emerged from the ashes of the successful Washington Freedom Futures program last season. Despite a squad with some reasonable talent like former WPS’ers Marisa Abegg and Christie Welsh some talented collegians like Bri Hovington and Christine Nairn, United still finished short of the playoffs, a rather rude awakening for a side that likely dreamed of a title at the beginning of the year. Ambition is high again this year though, as could be seen by their signing of former Freedom star Becky Sauerbrunn. She’ll be limited by USWNT duty, but her contributions could be huge for the matches she is there for. Former Philadelphia Independence duo Joanna Lohman and Lianne Sanderson also add to the club’s attack while providing vital experience, while holdovers like Abegg, Hayley Siegel, and Jerica DeWolfe are a bridge between this year and last year’s team. DCU will also be able to boast a truly frightening defensive midfield duo in former Sky Blue FC grafter Carolyn Blank and Florida destroyer Holly King. Local product Diana Weigel also joins up and is a dangerous two-way threat in defense and attack after a sterling career at William & Mary. The big question is depth as a whole, with the club probably needing a few more signings to feel comfortable, especially in attack, where Sanderson may be counted upon to provide goals. The division looks like a cakewalk though, and United will fancy their chances of making a deep postseason run.
News from last season’s champions has been excruciatingly slow in coming out, but the word that at least eight players from last year’s first XI in the title game are returning can only bode well for the Eastern Conference powerhouse who’ll be looking for their third straight Final Four appearance. Which eight are returning isn’t exactly clear at this point, though the club does appear to return veterans Ronda Brooks and Rebecca Nolin, along with aggressive forward Tiffani Turpin. Crucially, goalkeeper Ashley Baker also returns and is in contention for being one of the best netminders not named Hope Solo in the W-League this season. Much likely depends on the return of the explosive duo of Megan Tomlinson and Alexa Newfield to the attack. Two-time All-League and last season’s championship game MVP, Tomlinson has made a habit of slicing through opposing defenses with frightening ease in Atlanta and is capable anywhere on the pitch. Newfield has been a rising star with the University of Georgia and has a deadly long-range shot in her arsenal from the run of play and on set pieces. There aren’t any household names on this squad, but then again, they were mostly looked over last season and ended up steamrolling the competition en route to their first title. Expect another serious challenge from the defending champions this year.
The end result of last season’s campaign must have been anathema for the Tony Danza Army who saw their side finish in third place when they had been used to fighting for league titles. Charlie Naimo is back at the controls though, and he’s already shown himself to be playing for keeps by assembling a wildly talented squad. Old hand Anna Picarelli returns in between the pipes and should have one of the league’s best defenses in front of her, with the Pali backline boasting the likes of USWNT’er Whitney Engen, AWK NCAA Defender of The Year Cami Levin, Pepperdine’s Michelle Pao, and Australian international Servet Uzunlar at their disposal. With WPS vets Sarah Huffman and Nikki Washington joining collegiate stars Taylor Lytle and Beth West in midfield, there’s bound to be plenty of attacking thrust for the middle of the park as well. If the club has one worry, it’s a lack of a big name striker to do the damage up top. Pepperdine duo Lynn Williams and Anisa Guajardo will try to provide the cutting edge in front of goal, with WPS vet Liz Bogus also in the mix. If these Blues do find a scoring touch, then look out, because they have the talent and the coaching to go all the way in the W-League this year.
Santa Clarita Blue Heat
The Blue Heat opened up a lot of eyes last season claiming a shock conference title in the regular season before being felled by Vancouver in the playoffs. Part of the reason that the Blue Heat went down before the Final Four was the absence of Portugal international Edite Fernandes, who likely would’ve won the league’s MVP award had she stayed healthy and led her club to the Final Four. Fernandes returns to the fold this year and brings along international compatriots Anna Borges and Laura Luis for good measure. The Blue Heat hardly stopped there though, building enough firepower to sink an armada. Wake Forest’s All-American contender Rachel Nuzzolese joins up, as well as Long Beach State hitwoman Nadia Link and UC Irvine star Natalia Ledezma. In midfield, Fernandes will get help from Canadian Taryne Boudreau, coming off a great season with LSU, and Mexican international Dinora Garza. 2011 W-League Goalkeeper of The Year Cynthia Jacobo promises to be an imposing presence in goal once again and may need to excel again for this team to be in with a shout for the title. The backline doesn’t contain as much standout talent as the attacking corps and may be the only thing between this club and the Final Four. If the attack lives up to their potential though, they may not need to be perfect defensively to make it to Ottawa.
Seattle Sounders Women
If hype decided titles, then the Seattle Sounders Women would already have a hand on the 2012 W-League trophy. With the collapse of WPS, the Sounders have gone on a relentless recruiting drive that has dazzled fans, bringing in USWNT starlets Sydney Leroux and Alex Morgan to fuel the attack, along with Stephanie Cox in defense, Megan Rapinoe in midfield and Hope Solo in goal. The end result has been massive interest and big gates for some preseason friendlies. There’s just one problem. Those listed above are almost assuredly going to be absent for much of the season, including the playoffs. Seattle hasn’t been in a rush to fill out the roster after that massive first wave of signings either. There’s no second goalkeeper listed behind Solo at the moment, which should raise an eyebrow or two. The defense is also perilously thin, with holdover Kelli Smith the only defender other than Cox listed. It’s a little more promising further up the pitch, with Washington products Kate Deines and Lindsay Elston a promising duo in midfield, along with former Boston Breaker Keelin Winters. In lieu of Leroux and Morgan, the club can fall back on the goals of Lyndsey Patterson, a veteran at this level, and another Washington product, Mexican international Veronica Perez. The Sounders should have enough to challenge for the playoffs in an extremely competitive Western Conference, but this team isn’t the shoo-in for the title that some would make you believe.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
The Whitecaps entered last season with very high hopes after putting together a side full of big time Canadian talent including the likes of Sydney Leroux, Shannon Woeller, and Tina Romagnuolo, along with some high profile American imports like Amber Brooks, Tiffany Weimer, and Jen Stoltenberg. In the end though, it didn’t quite work out to plan, with Vancouver being beaten decisively in the Final Four by champions Atlanta and having to settle for third place. The strategy seems to be much the same this year, though Vancouver’s doing it with almost an entirely new team, with Jenna Richardson, Jaclyn Sawicki and Woeller being the only survivors from last season’s squad. Richardson will help lead an attack that features Oregon State teammate Chelsea Buckland, WPS journeywoman Mele French, and Illinois veteran Marissa Mykines. Cult heroine Kaylyn Kyle is likely to be the starring attraction in a midfield that also features fellow internationals Sawicki, Chelsea Stewart, and Brittany Timko. The Whtiecaps could boast one of the league’s top situations in goal with Justine Bernier likely to be the club’s #1 with promising Washington State product Gurveen Clair backing her up. There’s talent in defense as well, with college stalwarts Jenna Carosio, Nicole Setterlund and Brittany Galindo joining up with internationals Woeller and Melanie Booth and WPS veteran Danielle Johnson. Inevitably though, this team faces many of the same problems as Seattle does, with plenty of players likely to be missing through Olympic or U20 duty, promising to create some selection headaches for first-year boss Jesse Symons.
Hamilton FC Rage
The Rage weren’t very good last season, and while they’ve only got two players confirmed on the roster as of press time, those additions show some ambition. Canadian international Diamond Simpson has been tipped as a future star and could be in the frame for a WWC spot in 2015. Also turning out for Hamilton will be Louisville’s Angelika Uremovich, who was a big part of the Card’s successful 2011 season. A few more additions like that and Hamilton could well be in the frame for a postseason challenge.
“Best of the rest” honors in the Central Conference might be going Laval’s way, as the eternal bridesmaids in Canada bring a deceptive amount of talent into the 2012 season. Leading scorer Catherine Charron-Delage figures to get some help from Michigan powerhouse Nkem Ezurike up top. Midfield looks solid as well, with Vanessa Legault-Cordisco teaming up with Ohio State fireplug Danica Wu to cause some havoc. In goal, Maryland’s Rachelle Beanlands is considered one of Canada’s bright young prospects and could further her reputation with another strong effort here. The only questions is how much U20 duties will affect this team as Canada prepares for the finals in Canada in August.
Long Island Rough Riders
Home to the likes of Sue Weber and Crystal Dunn in the past, this year’s Rough Rider squad looks a little more modest, with the leading names likely to be Maryland’s exemplary defensive midfielder Domenica Hodak and Duke’s Kim DeCesare. Kaila Sciascia and Brooke DeRosa return to provide the firepower for this year’s Long Island squad in a division that should be winnable for the veteran W-League campaigners. The star power for a run deep into the playoffs doesn’t appear to be here however.
New Jersey Wildcats
The return of Jim Gabarra was the biggest news for the one-time W-League giants who have struggled to reach the summit since the WPS’ rise and fall. Signing USWNT’er Yael Averbuch was a great statement of intent, while the trio of Esmeralda Negron, Kylee Rossi, and Jessica Fuccello should make this Wildcats team dangerous in front of goal. An astute signing was Lauren Smedley to protect the goal, with the Lafayette keeper a star at college level. A title is probably beyond Gabarra’s side’s grasp, but they should be favorites to take home a division title.
Charlotte Lady Eagles
Last season spelt the end of the line for many of the last generation of Lady Eagles, with the likes of Laura Novikoff, Christine Rife, Jess Rostedt, and Alyssa Whitehead all moving on. That’s not to say that some experienced campaigners haven’t returned, with Ashley Braam, Kelsey Fenix, Hannah Gmerek, Sam Huecker, and Shelley Lyle among the vets back to give it another go. Adding Virginia’s super sub, Gloria Douglas and WPS reserve keeper Robyn Jones have helped fortify the ranks as well. The biggest addition though is of controversial Brazilian Leah Fortune, who’ll be counted on to help breathe life into an inconsistent attack. If the newcomers gel quickly, Charlotte could be a dark horse for the postseason.
VSI Tampa Flames
Tampa looks most likely to close the gap in the division of any of the expansion sides with some astute signings, many from the UCF and South Florida collegiate programs. Marky Boyce was a mid-major scoring monster at Charleston Southern and could feature in an offense that could also boast U.S. youth internationals and Stanford attackers Shelby and Sydney Payne. Also said to be in the frame is UCF’s marauding German full-back Bianca Joswiak, who could be one of the league’s most exciting players to watch. Knocking Atlanta and Charlotte off the summit of the division doesn’t figure to be easy, but Tampa may have a puncher’s chance if their talent gels quickly.
In another division/conference, the Rush could well be a favorite to mack it to the Final Four in Ottawa. Still, the Rush, blessed with one of the nation’s top youth setups, should be dangerous in the Western Conference. Brittany Bock, a pivotal member of last season’s WPS champion WNY Flash, was the marquee signing and will be looking to galvanize a squad full of young talent. Canadian keeper Dayle Colpitts has been impressive in stretches at Virginia Tech, while North Carolina signee Lindsey Horan boasts bags of pace and no shortage of potential if she’s not preoccupied with U20 duty. Finally, Portland full-back Kendall Johnson will be eager to make a return to competitive action following the serious knee injury that forced her out all last season. The Rush might not boast as many big names as some of their conference brethren but do have the potential to spring an upset or two, meaning they have a chance of sneaking into the playoffs.
Colorado Rapids Women
The formerly anonymous Colorado Force got a huge makeover in terms of branding and ambition with the club now being the official women’s wing of the MLS’ Colorado Rapids. The Rapids Women have taken little time in building a continental side, bringing in Australian international Brooke Spence, Danish internationals Katrine Korsgaard and Camilla Kur-Larsen, South African international Ode Fulutudilu, and England international Laura Thacker. How all those players adapt to the W-League will be worth watching, but the club did make an astute signing by bringing back former Ohio State standout Lauren Robertson to mind the goal. There’s probably too much volatility to expect a playoff run against more battle tested squads, but the new ambition bodes well for the franchise’s future.
…and The Rest
London Grpyhons – A mystery, with no player news/profiles to be found. Were rock bottom last season in the Central Conference.
Quebec City Amiral – The Amiral bring back experienced keeper Marie-Pier Bilodeau and a host of regional talent, but they may not make the playoff places given the improvement from some rivals.
Rochester Ravens – The good news for Rochester is that they’ve retained the services of uber-talented Maryland product Ashley Grove. The bad is that they don’t seem to have improved the team surrounding her and could be fighting to stay off bottom of the conference again.
Toronto Lady Lynx – The Lady Lynx made the playoffs last year, but with a roster draped in mystery this season, anything more than contending for the postseason looks iffy. Shannen Jainudeen is a player with no small potential, and captain Alyscha Mottershead sees herself with a growing international reputation, but the uncertainty over the rest of the roster looms large.
Dayton Dutch Lions – New to the league in 2011, the Dutch Lions stood little chance against veteran sides like Atlanta and Charlotte but got a better draw this year, with less travel and more sensible regional opponents in their division. The division is pretty doable, even if not many names for this season’s roster have been released. Wright State star Jen Agueci is one confirmed name for a club likely to be stocked with regional collegiate players. Second in the division is realistic but likely not much more than that.
Fredericksburg Impact – Another likely to be happy to be moving away from the Atlanta-Charlotte duopoly, Fredericksburg will be aiming for the playoffs this season after last year’s struggles. With nary a peep regarding a roster though, it’s hard to judge if this club can take a step forward in 2012.
Northern Virginia Majestics – It’s been a long while since the Majestics have been anything other than bottom feeders in the W-League, but the move to the Atlantic Division should help their cause. Signing Jill Porto, experienced at this level, was savvy, and Maryland forward Alex Reed could be effective in front of goal. With more of their roster unknown though, it’s difficult to tip them highly.
Virginia Beach Piranhas – The Piranhas’ 2003 title must seem like a long, long time ago as the former Hampton Roads side has slid further and further away from the league’s elite since. Top talent has been scarce as of late, and head coach Wendy Waddell will be looking to smaller college talent to boost the ranks, with players from the likes of Averett University and Georgia Perimeter College trying to boost the Piranhas back into the postseason. The division is doable though, and second place could be within their grasp if Waddell can unearth some talent.
New Jersey Rangers – The “other” New Jersey team was one of the W-League’s worst teams last year, and while word of a clearout acknowledges a problem, the talent brought in to reinvigorate the side doesn’t appear to be enough to make this team a playoff contender. More than likely, they’ll be fighting to avoid the division’s wooden spoon.
New York Magic – Rashidah Sherman toiled for this club last year, providing no shortage of offense, often in vain for the strugglers. Without her, the Magic might disappear from the postseason race in short order. Some Japanese products, including former youth international Yuiko Inoue will need to deliver quickly if this side are to stand a chance of extending their season late into July.
North Jersey Valkyries – Stuck in mid-table last year, the Valkyries will likely experience much of the same this season. The likes of UConn’s Gabby Cuevas fanned spiky forward Danielle Schulmann should ensure the Valkyries avoid the basement, but without knowledge of more of their roster, it’s hard to predict a playoff push.
Central SC Cobras – This might be the hardest division to be an expansion team in, because Atlanta and Charlotte are so well entrenched. The Cobras bring in players with international experience like Alison Jarrow, Christina Reuter, and Ayana Russell, but the sum of the parts assembled may not be enough to topple the duopoly at the top of the division. One to watch is Clemson forward Tabitha Padgett, who missed the college season with injury but could light up the W-League if she plays to her potential.
FC Jax Destroyers – No history as an expansion franchise, and as of press time, no confirmed players. Doesn’t exactly bode well in what looks like a competitive division.
Los Angeles Strikers – Some serious hubris was on display last year, when the Strikers sacked a coach in the middle of the season and still finished in sixth in the Western Conference anyway. There’s a smattering of talent, including USC’s Samantha Johnson, Michigan’s Mexican youth international Christina Murillo, and Missouri’s Dominique Richardson, but on the whole, there doesn’t look to be enough to challenge the conference’s big guns.
Victoria Highlanders FC – The Highlanders got a rude welcome to life in the W-League last year, winning just one of fourteen games. While the club has kept much of last year’s squad together and could be more competitive generally, they’re in a ruthless conference and could struggle to get off the bottom of the league again.