2014 NWSL Preview – Portland Thorns

Projected Early Season Lineup (Questionable Starters in Parentheses)

Projected Full Strength Lineup

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.

Coach/Tactics

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.
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NWSL – Fantasy Preview – Round One

Team Fantasy Rankings – Round One

1. Seattle
2. Portland
3. FC Kansas City
4. Western New York
5. Washington
6. Sky Blue FC
7. Boston
8. Houston

Positional Rankings

GK

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.

DEF

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.

MF

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.

FW

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.

2014 NWSL Preview – Sky Blue FC

Projected Starting Lineup

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.

Coach/Tactics

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.
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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
-
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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