The NWSL kicked off season five this past weekend and, with the tendering of a new collective bargaining agreement less than two weeks ago, many members of the USWNT joined their clubs for the start of play. Even though players like Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan have opted to play abroad, the USWNT remains an important part of the league. Non-NT talent continues to play an increased role both on and off the field as the level of overall talent rises in the NWSL. Still, in order to make a strong push for the playoffs, each team is going to need certain USWNT players to step up and play a key role in their success.
To put it lightly, the Boston Breakers have not been a very good team in the NWSL era. Their best regular season finish came in the inaugural season when they finished 5th, just outside of the playoff picture. Since then, they’ve let in far more goals than they’ve scored en route to back-to-back last place finishes in season three and season four. Enter Megan Oyster and Rose Lavelle.
Oyster, recently capped by the USWNT, was a revelation during her time in Washington until she suddenly fell out of favor with first year coach, Jim Gabarra. Traded to Boston during the Great Spirit Culling of Offseason 2016, Oyster is a gift to a Breakers team that has struggled mightily to keep the ball out of the back of the net. In front of a healthy Abby Smith, who showed some promise before tearing her ACL in 2016, Oyster should do well to sure up a back line that’s grown too accustomed to dejectedly trotting back to midfield.
In the same way that Oyster will help solve Boston’s sieve mentality, Lavelle’s acclimation to the NWSL will be absolutely necessary to Boston posting a positive goal differential this season. A crafty player with a strong left foot, Lavelle is adept at both creating her own chances and providing chances to others on her team. If Lavelle shows even a fraction of the dazzling skill she’s demonstrated in her first few USWNT starts, the Boston Breakers have a legitimate shot at not being terrible this year. Then again, they conceded only seven minutes into their first match and ended up losing 2-0 so you never really know.
Chicago Red Stars
The Red Stars are not going to be very successful this season if Christen Press has too many matches like her opening weekend performance against Houston. Press took a single shot the entire game and, disappointingly, that shot wasn’t even on goal. When she’s in the zone, Press can be one of the most dangerous forwards in the game. Her combination of technical skill and finishing ability makes her a forward that defenses fear. But, as demonstrated in Houston on Saturday, her propensity to over think her shot and get tentative in the box can hinder a Chicago team that really leans on her for production.
Chicago has made the semifinals the last two seasons and are looking to take that next step into the NWSL final in season five. If they’re going to accomplish that goal they need Press to spearhead the forward line and elevate the game of teammates like Stephanie McCaffrey and Jen Hoy.
FC Kansas City
This section was going to be about Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez, both of whom scored huge goals in their first games back after having children. Then, since the world is a cruel and unforgiving place, Amy Rodriguez went down with what looks to be a serious injury. In conjunction with Shea Groom, the two added a persistent goal scoring threat that Kansas City sorely lacked last season. If it turns out that Rodriguez is done for the season and it’s Leroux with Groom, that would still be a formidable pairing.
Leroux doesn’t seem to have lost a step in her first match, scoring a goal that demonstrated her speed and finishing ability in the 7’.
If not for a post, she could have had a brace in the first half. Kansas City is undoubtedly the greatest defensive team in the NWSL. If they add consistent offense to their sometimes anemic attack, look out, this team could contend for their third NWSL championship.
Who is the real Kealia Ohai? There’s always a great deal of excitement around a player like Ohai because of what she’s capable of accomplishing. When she shows exactly what that is, like her stellar second half of the season in 2016 when she scored 10 goals in 11 matches, it’s not hard to understand the buzz. The problem with Ohai has always been sustaining that pace throughout an entire year. In the same season that Ohai went on that tear, the Dash also went on a long streak where they couldn’t score if their lives depended on it. So, even though Ohai went on a late run they still missed the playoffs.
The Dash have never made the playoffs in their NWSL tenure and Ohai, now the captain of the team with the absence of Carli Lloyd, seems on a mission to change that. She used her blazing speed to open her account against Chicago in the first match of the year. The real test for Ohai - and the playoff hopes of the Dash - is if she can become the reliable scorer everyone knows she’s capable of being.
North Carolina Courage
Last season’s NWSL MVP, Lynn Williams, earned her spot on the USWNT through a stellar goalscoring campaign in 2016. That wasn’t all she earned. She led the late, great WNY Flash to their first and only NWSL championship. The Flash were sold and renamed the North Carolina Courage in the offseason. Williams will need to renew her prolific strike partnership with Jess McDonald to ensure that the rebranded team maintains their elite level of success.
In their first match against the Spirit, the lone goal came from McCall Zerboni. Lynn Williams was a nuisance to the Spirit backline throughout the match. She recorded eight shots on goal against Spirit goalkeeper, Stephanie Labbe, who stood on her head and held the Courage to a 1-0 victory. If Williams keeps putting shots on goal like that, she’ll see her goal total rise again this season.
On paper, the Orlando Pride have everything that they need to contend in the NWSL. A large fanbase that creates a great home atmosphere, MLS resources, an elite coach, and someone named Marta on their roster. Pencil them in for the playoffs, right? Not so fast. In their inaugural season, the Pride were sort of like if the Boston Breakers could score a few more goals. Keeping the ball out of the back of the net was a problem last year and Ashlyn Harris found herself peppered with shots all season long.
This season the Pride have done a better job of putting competent defenders in front of Harris, including Australian international Alanna Kennedy and USWNT veteran Ali Krieger. So now it’s up to Harris to prove that she’s more than just an elite shot-stopper. In the past, she’s been criticized for her inability to organize her backline and questionable positioning in the box combined with overaggressive play. If the Pride are going to contend this year, Harris has to show that she can be a calm, organized goalkeeper. Yes, the theatrics are fun and who doesn’t love a gif of a Harris charging out to head a ball out past the 18 yard box? But if that same goalkeeper gives up two goals and her team comes away with nothing, what’s the point?
In a lot of ways, 2017 might be the last chance saloon for Ashlyn Harris. She’s approaching 32 years old; forget being the USWNT starter, she might soon be eclipsed as the backup by any number of youth prospects who are quickly approaching readiness.
Allie Long: the woman, the myth, the legend. Is there anything she can’t do? Wait, don’t ask that question, we’ve yet to see the Allie Long goalkeeper experiment and I’d like to keep it that way. All jokes aside, it’s hard to argue that any American player has been more important to this Thorns team throughout its entire history than Long, a player who exemplifies a workmanlike attitude that doesn’t really seem to make a whole lot of sense for the NWSL’s gilded club. But it works and she makes the Thorns work.
Look no further than their first match against Orlando. Notorious prankster Mark Parsons decided to continue on the Long as a centerback experiment because who doesn’t love a little fun? It wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t great either. The Thorns exposed Adrianna Franch and nearly offered Orlando a couple of goals on a silver platter. If not for a Nadia Nadim penalty conversion, the Thorns could have gone to half tied at one or even down a few goals.
In the second half, Parsons came to his senses and moved Long to the midfield where she linked up with Christine Sinclair for the second goal and if not for that pesky offside flag could have had a goal or two of her own. Look back over the past four seasons and there’s countless examples of Long replicating those results. The fact is, she’s the engine that makes the Portland Lamborghini purr and if she plays to her level they’re an easy lock to make the playoffs again.
Has Megan Rapinoe recovered from the ACL tear she suffered back in 2015? On a purely physical level, the answer is probably yes. But the Megan Rapinoe that we all remember delivering magic time and time again might be gone forever. Or, at the very least, rusted beyond recognition. For the sake of the Seattle Reign, Rapinoe needs to rediscover her game and quickly.
The Reign are an interesting team because they’ve undergone core changes in the past season and a half, losing Hope Solo and Kim Little, yet they’re still expected to contend. A lot of that is the mythos surrounding Laura Harvey and players like Jess Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe. The on-field evidence tells a different story.
Against Sky Blue, Rapinoe had many of the aspects of her old game: shooting from anywhere and everywhere, cutting in on her right foot, driven crosses into the box. Only this time most of those shots dribbled tamely into the arms of the goalkeeper and the crosses sailed all the way through the box and often out of bounds. If this pattern continues the Reign will have to lean on first year starter, Haley Kopmeyer, who has shown she’s more than capable but that’s not necessarily a strategy that will take them back to the promised land.
Sky Blue FC
Five years in and Sky Blue still doesn’t really have an identity. Are they a good defensive team? Sometimes. A good attacking team? On occasion. Similarly, five years in and I couldn’t tell you if Kelley O’Hara is an attacker or a defender. Sure, she mostly starts as a forward and sometimes she stays there. And then other times you look back and she’s chilling in defense.
In a lot of ways that makes Kelley O’Hara the perfect player to measure the prospects of Sky Blue. Is she the best attacker on the team? No, that’s Sam Kerr. Is she the best defender? Amazingly, that’s probably still Christie Pearce. But if Sky Blue is finally going to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since season one they’re going to need an excellent supplementary season from O’Hara. She doesn’t have to be the best anything on the team but if she utilizes her status as best American utility player, this might finally be the year that Sky Blue breaks out of their middling mold.
None for the Spirit. Good luck guys!