We Hardly Knew Ye, Tom Sermanni

(NOTE: I wrote this on AWK last November when Tom Sermanni was hired.)

Had he known his job was on the line, it’s likely Tom Sermanni might have had a different mindset heading into the Algarve Cup last month. But with 15 months until his next (and really first) meaningful game at the World Cup in Canada, he was still in the process of trying to find out what he had.

The Algarve Cup has always been an oddity in the women’s soccer world, a tournament played in front of virtually no fans in Portugal, but featuring most of the best teams in the world. Even if you witnessed it online, you were one of the few, it wasn’t even available through ussoccer.com, let alone a cable television network.

Like seemingly everything else historically in women’s soccer, the USWNT has ruled the Algarve, winning 8 of the last 11 coming into the 2014 edition, with two of the non-winning years the result of penalty kicks in the finals. However, although it’s the stiffest competition the United States will likely face until next year’s Algarve, it’s also perhaps the only time a relatively new coach like Sermanni can look at new players in pressure situations (see: actual real live World Cup contenders).

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2014 NWSL Preview – And Now An Interlude…(Season Predictions)

The last five previews will be coming, probably within the next 3-5 days. Since that’s probably going to be after the season starts, here are my predictions for the season:

League Table

1. FC Kansas City
2. Portland Thorns
3. Seattle Reign
4. WNY Flash
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5. Chicago Red Stars
6. Sky Blue FC
7. Washington Spirit
8. Houston Dash
9. Boston Breakers

Individual Awards

Golden Boot + MVP – Christine Sinclair, Portland
Rookie of the Year – Kassey Kallman, FC Kansas City
Goalkeeper of the Year – Nicole Barnhart, FC Kansas City
Defender of the Year – Becky Sauerbrunn, FC Kansas City
Coach of the Year – Laura Harvey, Seattle Reign

2014 NWSL Preview – WNY Flash

Projected Opening Day Lineup (Questionable Starters in Parentheses)

For the first time in an age, specifically since the clubs early days in the W-League, the Western New York Flash ended the season with a gnawing feeling of being unfulfilled. The Flash had defied many of the pundits’ predictions of upper-mid table and won the NWSL’s inaugural regular season title only to fall at the final hurdle to Portland in the championship match. Besides being the club’s first season with a title in four tries, the Flash also lost out on a chance to win four league titles in four different leagues with the defeat. The run had to end some time, but it was a mostly dispiriting performance as well, as the Flash looked distinctly second best on their own turf in the title game.

In a league where there was widespread upheaval in the offseason, Western New York seemed to be an outlier, a mark of stability. Indeed, it was only until the preseason proper began that some of the chess pieces in Rochester began to be moved around the board a bit. Some of the moves weren’t exactly born of ideal circumstances, as AD Franch tore her ACL early in the preseason, a hammer blow after her star turn last season and a turn of events that necessitated the signing of Australian Lydia Williams. The loss of Estelle Johnson, Alex Sahlen, and Sarah Huffman for various reasons looked to be a worry, but a trade with Portland netted Kathryn Williamson and Courtney Wetzel, in addition to a first-round draft pick next season, which should ease a few fears about the defense. There should be few of those worries on the opposite side of the ball, where all of the principal players from last season return.

Coach/Tactics

Failure hasn’t come often for Flash boss Aaran Lines, and though it’s hard to really call last season a failure considering the team ended up as regular season champs, it’s hard to believe the title match loss was anything but a bitter disappointment given the club’s success in previous seasons. Lines’ star has risen considerably since he was first cutting his teeth with the club in the W-League. Title after title in different leagues has won him the respect of many, though seemingly not the U.S. Soccer brass, as his name never seems to come up when the USWNT job comes open. Again a likely outsider for the spot, Lines can do little but plug away with the Flash in hopes of catching the eyes of the search committee for the USWNT job. That’s if he’s even interested in the position, and with business to do in getting the club back to the summit at this level, that’s not a given.

Tactically, there’s not particularly much intrigue considering the frontline and midfield probably isn’t going to be changed from last season’s units which served the Flash so well. The only real concern is when Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd, (possibly) Adriana, and Sam Kerr are away on international duty. With much more cohesiveness in the defense, Lines might choose to go 4-4-2 with Adriana and/or Emma Kete potential options if the club is shorthanded, opting for two banks of four and defensive solidity. The team figures to be much more adventurous at full strength, with Kerr able to play on either flank and potentially used as a matchup exploiter against full-backs. The midfield triangle complements each other greatly, with Salem as the pace setter, Zerboni as the energy, and Lloyd as the attacking thrust.

Early results might be dictated by how well the new look back four gels. The Brittany Taylor-Kathryn Williamson partnership is worth watching, as the latter isn’t an analogous copy of Estelle Johnson in every sense, with the newcomer using pace and a fearlessness in diving into tackles more than brute force at times, though she showed in last season’s NWSL title game, she isn’t averse to physicality. There are more questions at full-back. Katherine Reynolds will play at one spot, it’s just a matter of which one, as she’s capable at both left and right-back. Right-back seems more likely on paper, with Kristen Edmonds and Haley Palmer set to battle it out at left-back. Given the unstable situation there, the Flash may well see the benefits of keeping Sam Kerr at left-wing to harass opposing right-backs and prevent potential overloads from overlapping runs into that zone.
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2014 NWSL Preview – FC Kansas City

Projected Opening Day Lineup

Projected Full-Strength Lineup

In the end for FC Kansas City in 2013, it was too much romanticism and not enough pragmatism, as the team with the most eye-pleasing style in the league couldn’t mask a fatal flaw of being unable to close out games late, even with multiple goal leads. It cost them the regular season title when they coughed it up against Chicago on the last weekend of play before the playoffs. And it cost them so much more just a week later when they raced out to a 2-0 lead on Portland, only to capitulate, 3-2, on home turf in a traumatizing defeat. It had to have left a sour taste in the mouths of all involved considering the club had looked like one of the league’s true success stories for much of the season after some worried whether a club that hardly looked like one of the NWSL’s glamour outfits upon the basic establishment of the league would be able to keep up with glossier rivals.

The talent is clearly there for another run at the title. Despite losing both of their Canadian allocations in the offseason after both had been crucial parts of last year’s team, FCKC hardly skipped a beat in acquiring the rights to defender Nikki Phillips while also netting a potential coup in bringing in newly minted USWNT forward Sarah Hagen. Add in what looks to be on paper another very solid draft filled with promising local talent, and it’s not hard to imagine the Midwestern club standing on top of the pile come late August. But the second FCKC gets pegged back late in a match where they’re protecting a lead? Expect a few hearts in mouths until the club proves it’s gained the mental strength to see games out over the course of ninety minutes.

Coach/Tactics

Vlatko Andonovski retains a squad the envy of much of the league but may face a task much harder than some of his rivals. Namely, it’s stomping out that bugaboo listed above, the alarming penchant of conceding late goals when trying to ease to a victory when leading down the stretch. Some felt Andonovski might be outwitted last season, as his resume was probably one of the thinnest of the coaches in the league coming into the NWSL’s inaugural season. It was not the case for most of the season though, as FCKC got a great allocation, made wise moves to build the team, and played a progressive and effective style that won them many fans by season’s end. The pressure will be on this season though, as there really isn’t an excuse for a similar inability to close games out for a second successive season. Andonovski’s done a great job thus far, but expect some teeth gnashing if his side blows a lead or two early this season.

I wouldn’t expect much in the way of a change in mentality in the form of tactics, considering, with the exception of late-game management, FCKC’s 4-2-3-1 worked pretty well last season. The main concern is that the club’s defensive midfield duo of Jen Buczkowski and Desiree Scott, had something last season that isn’t going to be easily replicable with Scott having moved on. There’s nobody on this roster that’s going to be able to match Scott’s ability to destroy, meaning FCKC might have to go towards a more progressive approach with a more offensive midfielder alongside Buczkowski. If that fails, it might be a situation of switching to a 4-3-3, though that might disrupt the partnership of Erika Tymrak and Lauren Holiday that worked so well last year.

Other tactical worries may be using Kassey Kallman as a left-back, when she played center-back extensively with Florida State. Kallman should be fine defensively, but it remains to be seen how adventurous she is on offense. If she’s reticent to burst forward, FCKC could look lopsided at times with Leigh Ann Robinson likely to explode forward on the other flank with great frequency. Who plays on the right is another area of contention, and it’d hardly be surprising to see the “three” behind the center forward to rotate a great deal to try and unsettle the opposition. Lastly, Andonovski will be hungry to get goals from his center forward. Practically speaking, the bluntness in front of goal last season from that zone may have hurt the team late in games, as opposing backlines may not have necessarily respected the firepower in that area, encouraging defenses to push up with little fear from reprisal from the FCKC player leading the line.
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2014 NWSL Preview – Seattle Reign

Seattle Reign

Projected Opening Day Lineup

The Seattle Reign gave general manager and head coach Laura Harvey a contract extension through the 2017 season in late August, a critical vote of confidence after a deeply disappointing first season in charge of the Pacific Northwest club. The Reign likely had designs on being one of the league’s glamour clubs upon its establishment but instead were a side that couldn’t defend, couldn’t score, and couldn’t extricate itself from the nether regions of the table when all was said and done. True, they weren’t that lucky with their allocations or injuries, losing Amy Rodriguez to maternity leave, Hope Solo through injury for half the year, and Megan Rapinoe to European club commitments, also for half the year. But the team built around the cadre of stars was exceedingly poor, though Harvey didn’t take over as GM until the middle of the season.

Harvey, newly in her dual roles with the club, tried to juggle her squad through trades and signings, but when all was said and done, she could only do so much to turn over a team that played with little in the way of a pulse for so long in 2013. Come the offseason though, Harvey was relentless in her pursuit of a revitalized squad, offloading a giant chunk of the squad, mainly through trades. There was a clear focus on bringing in offensive reinforcements, with Harvey perhaps as bored to tears as many neutrals were in watching the attack challenged Reign last season. The most notable piece was Sydney Leroux, but Harvey also brought in the likes of Kim Little, Nahomi Kawasumi, and Beverly Goebel to bolster the attacking ranks.

Fixing the defense? Well, the changes were less overt. Stephanie Cox will be here from the start after missing most of last season on maternity leave, while Amanda Frisbie and Kendall Fletcher also join up to add depth. But there’s not a star in sight, and some may wonder if Harvey’s done enough to fortify a rearguard that kept zero clean sheets last season. It’s a question that’ll have to be answered in the affirmative if Seattle is to challenge for honors this year.

Coach/Tactics

Harvey entered the league last season with a massive reputation thanks to her work with Arsenal in England. She helped turn the club into the dominant power in English women’s football before making the move across the pond to lead the charge for the Reign. It was a trial by fire, and though Harvey couldn’t have anticipated many of the problems she faced as the season rolled on. The 0-9-1 start was distressing enough, even through the long line of injuries and absences. The 1-5-0 finish? More worrying, considering Harvey had Rapinoe and Solo in the lineup. With playoff hopes finished, it’s hard to come away without a feeling of the club having mailed it in late. The contract extension should erase questions of Harvey’s job security in the short-term, but given the aggressive moves in the offseason, another season near the foot of the table could prove unsurvivable for the Reign’s boss.

From rueing the lack of options in attack, Harvey instead finds herself needing to find the right balance with her weapons while also keeping her all-star cadre of attackers happy with their minutes. Harvey figures to be picking five from six when everyone’s available, with Sydney Leroux, Naho, Megan Rapinoe, Jessica Fishlock, Kim Little, and Beverly Goebel all battling for a spot in the first XI. Leroux looks likeliest to spearhead the formation, while Rapinoe and Naho figure to be on the wings, though which flank each will line up on is still in question. Fishlock and Little may be placed a little deeper to allow for their predatory runs into space down the center. Harvey will be hoping Fishlock doesn’t have to do quite as much defending this season from midfield.

Defensively, Keelin Winters will shield a back four that may actually be three-fourths of the unit that finished up as starters last season. Good thing? Bad thing? We’ll see in time, though it largely depends on Stephanie Cox returning to her prime form and Amanda Frisbie making the impact expected of her. If the defense can’t come good? It could be a roller coaster ride that ends earlier than hoped.
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2014 NWSL Preview – Boston Breakers

Projected Starting Lineup (Questionable Starters in Parentheses)

The Boston Breakers dispensed with Lisa Cole early in August with the club theoretically in the playoff race, but despite the club’s protests otherwise, it was akin to waving the white flag on another season stuck in the middle of the top level. Questionable team construction early in the season and brutal inconsistency throughout doomed the club to a competent obscurity, with the Breakers managing to evade the dregs of the league but still hardly ever looking like they’d finish in one of the playoff spots.

It was a season of change in the offseason, with the club hiring Tom Durkin, the former Academy Director for the IMG Academy in Florida. He was immediately beset with team cornerstone Sydney Leroux essentially forcing her way out of town via trade. In came Kristie Mewis in an anticipated and desired homecoming, but out went the player many thought the Breakers would be building around for some years to come. The club also lost allocated player Meghan Klingenberg in the expansion draft and only made a big splash late in the offseason by acquiring Lisa De Vanna via trade, paying a steep price. It’s hardly the ideal circumstance for a new coach to walk into, but it’s the one Durkin finds himself in nonetheless.

Coach/Tactics

Durkin isn’t totally foreign to coaching women, including being the head of the USASA Region III team at one point, but that’s over two decades ago. Since, he’s been around the men’s game almost exclusively and has had great success at the IMG Academy in developing some brilliant young American talent while also coaching the Bradenton Academics PDL team. How exactly that prepares him for this challenge is up for debate, but the Breakers have hardly hired a neophyte, with Durkin having been involved at many levels of the game for a very long time.

How the new coach sets up is anyone’s guess considering there’s not much of a book on him at this level. Logic would seem to point to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 to best take advantage of his best players. Given how wobbly the back four looks, it’d be a surprise if they aren’t shielded by two defensive midfielders. Indeed, Kaylyn Kyle and Joanna Lohman filled this role in preseason, and there probably won’t be any deviation early on while the group tries to gel.

The front four really picks itself if healthy, on form, and not on international duty. Will the new boss have the bottle to drop De Vanna if she goes through a cold patch though? There aren’t a lot of options that inspire immediate confidence at season’s start, but how Durkin manages his attacking talisman will likely prove crucial at any rate.
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Spirit show promise in preseason opener

Bianca Sierra, coach Parsons's Player of the Match

Bianca Sierra, coach Parsons’ Player of the Match

In a match that was less about the score and more about developing team cohesion and checking out players trying to make the roster, the Washington Spirit nevertheless downed the North Carolina Tarheels, 2-0, on two second-half goals.

The opening roster had a lot of the marquee players sitting:

Forwards – Adams, Cuellar, Weimer
Midfielders – Angeli, Averbuch, Nairn
Defenders – Sierra, Pressley, Huster, Morris
GK – Jones

Carolina had somewhat the better of play in the first half, though with some impressive moments from some Spirit players. UNC’s midfielder Cameron Castleberry in particular is probably going to have nightmares about Bianca Sierra and Toni Pressley for some time to come. Sierra was all over her at every opportunity, and even when she managed to intercept a poorly-aimed Pressley pass and go in on goal, Toni just caught up to her and shouldered her off the ball as if she wasn’t there.
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NWSL – Note to League: Stop Relying on the Benevolence of Teams for Information

A little less than a year ago, I wrote a pretty annoyed screed directed towards the NWSL after Portland signed goalkeeper Adelaide Gay despite it seemingly running contrary to the stated roster rules. While the league eventually untangled the knot its vague declarations of what was and what wasn’t kosher in regards to team building produced, it didn’t come before fans and some in the media alike were tearing their hair out trying to wonder if the league was just making things up as it went along.

To an extent, the league has been much better with getting league information, specifically rules and regulations for the coming season, out to the public at-large. Roster rules, competition rules, and even media standards are all produced in great detail on the official league website, answering a good many question that were bound to pop up as the NWSL prepares to enter its second season of play.

At the same time though, information about preseason has lagged considerably. Unfathomably, there isn’t a master schedule of preseason matches that has been produced by the league. In particular, why hasn’t there been more promotion centrally by the league for both the Chicago and FC Kansas City match played in the suburbs of Saint Louis and the Portland Thorns’ trip to Arizona? Though the markets of Saint Louis and Phoenix probably aren’t en vogue with greater league ambitions of more partnerships with MLS clubs, what if greater league promotion of the exhibitions led to large crowds? Led to interest from potential owners with deep pockets? The clearest way forward in expansion at this point seems to be in expanding the league’s footprint both in the Midwest and on the West Coast. Franchises in Saint Louis and Phoenix may seem whimsical at first blush, but I’m not sure many pictured Houston being in the league at this time last year, nor a franchise of a pro league in Kansas City a few years ago. Opportunity lost?

But I digress. Information posted from the league on the official website has been scattershot at best, and it’s rather difficult to discern just how exactly the league is choosing what stories/releases to reproduce on the site. By my count, Sky Blue FC and WNY Flash were the only team with multiple stories on the preseason since players reported, while Boston, Houston, Portland, and FC Kansas City have no details about the preseason through stories on the official league site. Obviously, as anyone who’s been following twitter can attest to, Houston has been very active in accounting its preseason activity, while FC Kansas City was the first team to post a preseason roster last week. Boston and Portland have also been active in detailing some of their preseason activities, even through the veil of secrecy sitting on Providence Park right now (I’ll get to that in a bit).
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NWSL: A new era for the Spirit?

Jordan Angeli and Tiffany Weimer: Saviors of the Spirit?

Jordan Angeli and Tiffany Weimer: Saviors of the Spirit?


Last season the Spirit’s leading goal-scorer, Diana Matheson, scored four goals from the run of play – the same number as all the forwards combined. Today new acquisition Tiffany Weimer matched that total in one eighty-minute scrimmage (though it may probably helped that the scrimmage was 9v9 on a reduced-size field). That was just one sign that 2014 won’t be like 2013.

Another was the return of Jordan Angeli, who opened the scoring by firing a shot from twenty yards out into the lower right corner to give the white team the initial lead. Angeli was a revelation in 2010, as a rookie for the Boston Breakers scoring seven goals – second on the team only to the legendary Kelly Smith – and earning Player of the Month honors in July. But she tore her ACL in her first game of 2011 (though not before scoring a goal) and has taken until now to recover. She was drafted by the Spirit last year but wasn’t able to play for them.
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NWSL – Who Are Ya? – Camp Invitee Mini-Dossier – WNY Flash

WNY Flash

Torri Allen – D – Georgia – Former U.S. youth international had a respectable college career with Georgia but didn’t develop into a star as might have been expected after strong youth career. Played center-back at college level but too small (5’4″) to play centrally at this level. Might have the athleticism to make a move out wide but still got turned too easily by elite attackers in the SEC. Tough road to make it with a seasoned Flash defense.

Ally Lee – D – Jacksonville – Small school star was one of the Atlantic Sun’s best defenders in recent memory after four seasons with the Dolphins, including A-Sun Defensive Player of the Year honors for the best JU side in some time. Nice size for a center-back, especially one from a small conference school. Flash aren’t hard up for defenders though, especially rookies, meaning she might be a developmental prospect at best this season.

Kristen Meier – MF – Seattle Reign (Wake Forest) – Another player with local ties having been born in Syracuse, though she played club ball and attended college in the Southeast. Meier was a late charger in 2012 and was justly rewarded by being selected by Seattle in the 2013 rookie draft, though she played sporadically, getting released at the end of the season. Versatility in being able to play in defense and midfield could be key to sticking here.

Haley Palmer – D – San Diego State – Massive left-back stands at 5’9″ and is unsurprisingly a converted forward. Physical and athletic as you might expect and has been one of the Mountain West’s best defenders in recent memory, taking home two straight league Defensive Player of the Year awards. SDSU’s slight step backwards this year might have kept her from being drafted, but left-backs don’t fall off of trees, so I’d be surprised if she’s not on someone’s roster this year.
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