The NWSL season opens this weekend, which is plenty exciting in its own right, but is also a great opportunity to take a broader look at the National Team picture. While the Olympic roster is relatively set, Jill Ellis has said that final decisions won't be made until July, and that club form will be a part of that process. Which means that for many of the players on the bubble, performance over the next few months will play a meaningful role in determining whether they get on a plane for Rio.
And beyond those bubble candidates, the league is absolutely bursting with young talented players, many of whom are hoping to play their way into the national team eventually.
With that in mind, let's take a stroll through the league and identify some key players for each team that you'll want to keep an eye on.
Whitney Engen enters the season as a likely candidate for the Olympic roster, since she is arguably the most stable and seasoned defender available to step in behind Sauerbrunn and Johnston. But her place on that plane is far from secure, given the number of young defenders rising quickly up the ranks behind her. Boston had the worst defensive record in the league last year, so it will take a lot of work to repair the leaks. And if Engen stumbles out of the gate, she might see her chances decline. Another player to watch on that front is Kassey Kallman, who was one of the few bright spots for Boston last year. If she and Engen combine to right the defensive ship, she might also make a case for a future NT call-up. You'll also want to keep an eye on Stephanie McCaffrey, who has earned a few caps in recent months, although she doesn't seem to currently be in the mix for an Olympic spot. While her skills are obvious, it she hasn't quite managed to put it all together consistently. Still, Boston will depend on her heavily to orchestrate the attack, and a strong performance might well be enough to earn her at least an alternate spot in Rio. Finally, while she's unlikely to make a big splash immediately Abby Smith is a real talent. She's got no chance of a national team call-up this cycle, but has all the tools to make a world-class keeper, and has every chance of being in the mix looking forward to 2019.
Three Red Stars are locks for Rio (Press, Johnston, and Naeher), but the heart of this team is its wealth of exciting, young talent. Danielle Colaprico, a sharp holding midfielder with a wealth of passing skill, has already drawn some attention from Ellis. While she's very unlikely to jump the queue in the next few months, she could be a permanent fixture for the national team soon--re-establishing a central partnership with former college teammate Morgan Brian. Vanessa DiBernardo is another central midfielder with a real chance of making huge strides this year. She already has one of the keenest field visions in the game, and spent the winter honing her attacking chops in Australia--where she scored six goals in seven games for Perth Glory. With Lori Chalupny gone, DiBernardo will likely be the engine of the Red Stars, and has the potential to truly impress. In fact, DiBernardo is my sleeper pick for MVP this year. And given the relative dearth of true #10s in the national team pipeline, she could find herself earning a call-up sooner rather than later. Finally, speaking of positions with relatively little depth, there's not a lot behind Megan Klingenberg at the moment, a space that Arin Gilliland would fill perfectly. Defensively, she's not quite the finished product yet, though her positioning improved significantly over the course of last year, and she also could still use work delivering the final ball. Still, to my eyes she's already at least as good as Jaelene Hinkle. It's probably too late at this point for her to make the team this summer, but if I were in charge she'd already have earned a few caps and would certainly be on the shortlist.
Perhaps the bubbliest of bubble players right now is Heather O'Reilly. Her lack of inclusion in the Olympic qualifying roster drew a barrage of questions from fans, and while she has since been called back, that hasn't translated into many minutes. Still, I have a hard time seeing her failing to make it. She's simply too reliable, and too flexible, to leave home. Especially with sharply constrained 18-player rosters. But it's worth watching her closely. If she seems to have fallen off the pace even slightly, Ellis might well turn somewhere else. Meanwhile, departures and pregnancies have left FCKC with relatively few attacking options. That's going to put a lot of responsibility on the young shoulders of Shea Groom, who played well in her rookie year, only to be knocked out for several months by an injury. With pace to burn, great positional awareness, and a keen eye for goal, she has the potential to become the fulcrum of the team's attack. If she can combine those attributes with a bit more muscularity, she would make a useful addition to national team's striking options.
Houston fans have been beating the drum for Kealia Ohai for a while. But up until now, Ohai's notable talents have added up to a little bit less than the sum of their parts. Houston's offensive woes were team-wide last year, so it's hard to know precisely much blame Ohai should get individually. But preseason performances have them looking a lot more fluid these days, and Ohai has been a big part of that change. If she can focus her talents more directly on goal, she might finally live up to the promise that came with her signing. It's also notable that her capacity to play on the wing represents a spot currently somewhat underrepresented on the national team. Elsewhere on the pitch, the Dash have two other players worth at least passing attention. The first, Amber Brooks, is a bit of a known quantity whose time has arguably passed (she earned her one cap all the way back in 2013). But Houston seems genuinely invested in giving her a big role in the team (something that was decidedly not true last year), so it's worth watching to see if she can revitalize the spirit that brought excitement when she first came up. She's still only 25 after all. On the other side of the spectrum is Cari Roccaro, the 5th overall pick in the most recent draft. She's still out rehabbing a torn labrum, so is unlikely to make a big difference in 2016. But the the talent is absolutely there. She has the skills to play all over the pitch, though considering the Dash's needs, she's likely to be slotted in at center back if she's up to the challenge.
At this point, it seems clear that Ashlyn Harris is third choice keeper for the national team, though only by the slimmest of margins. So it's worth watching to see how her season progresses. A few weeks standing on her head might just be enough to tip the balance in her favor. Of course, this also may end up being a distinction without much difference, since Hope Solo is likely to log 100% of the minutes unless she's injured. At the other end of the pitch, it's also worth watching how Alex Morgan plays. Obviously, she's a lock to make the team. But given the quality of attacking options, it's conceivable (though probably not very likely) that she could lose her de facto starting role. So far in 2016, Morgan has looked like her old self, but if she were to drop into a funk, it would raise some questions, at the very least. A bit lower down on the totem pole, Sarah Hagen is now several years removed from her last appearance with the national team, but the change of scenery in Orlando could be just what the doctor ordered to revitalize her. I'm not 100% sure how well she'll play off of Morgan, but it's worth watching. Finally, I'm pretty high on Sam Witteman, who Orlando snagged in the draft. She's still a little raw, but has the talent to play pretty much anywhere. If she can harness her ability and improve her tactical acumen, she could be the next Kelley O'Hara. Plus, she's a Berkeley alum. Go Bears!
Lindsey Horan is a key player to watch here, not because there's any doubt about her making the Olympic squad, but because her position remains unclear. She's a striker by trade, but Ellis has tended to play her in the #6 or #8 slot, with decidedly mixed results. Will Portland push her back into a similar role? If so, will that give her time and space to cultivate her skills in that position? The resolution to the Horan question also may have knock-on effects for another Portland player: Allie Long, who only just this month finally got a callback from the national team, after two years adrift. She made the most of it, with an excellent game against Colombia (where she also bagged two goals). She's likely still behind Sam Mewis in the depth chart, but a strong start to the season could definitely shake things up there. Emily Sonnett is in a similar position: almost certainly on the short list for one of those final roster spots, but still somewhat in doubt. She's a solid defender, but still seems a little too nervous on the ball to trust with high pressure knockout games just yet. It's also not a sure thing that she'll be starting straight out of the gate for the Thorns, which might limit her chances to to play her way onto the plane.
Reign defender Lauren Barnes is clearly on the national team radar, though currently seems to be far enough down the list that meaningful minutes going forward seem unlikely. Meanwhile, Beverly Yanez has done nothing but score goals for the past few years, but is stuck behind a wealth of attacking talent. At this point, it probably isn't likely that she'll discover a new level of performance at age 27, but if she does take another step forward, it will make keeping her out of the team that much harder to justify. Another player worth tracking is Megan Rapinoe, currently out rehabbing her torn ACL, who will do everything possible to get back quickly in the hopes of proving her fitness and restoring her place on the national team roster. Elsewhere, Havana Solaun is a potential breakout candidate. She missed all of 2015 to injury, so is effectively still untested at this level, but has all the tools to make an impression. And you might want to keep an eye on Haley Kopmeyer, who is stuck behind Solo for now, but might eventually step in behind her both for the Reign and the national team.
Well, if you can say one positive thing about Sky Blue FC in 2016, it's that they won't lose many national teamers to the Olympics. Kelly O'Hara will go, certainly, but that's just about it. Christie Rampone is still treating it is a live possibility, but it's hard to see it happening. Rampone has defied Father Time for many years now, and there's no denying the value of experience. But there's also no denying that she's lost a step or three at this point. Other than that...yeah, I've got nothing. Sorry SBFC fans, for what looks like it's going to be a grueling year.
Crystal Dunn's MVP performance last year won her a permanent spot with the national team. But her role there remains somewhat in flux. If she continues to dominate the league as she did last year, she may force Ellis into carving out more minutes for her. On a similar note, there's Ali Krieger, who seems to have fallen slightly out of favor with the national side, for reasons that are baffling to many. It's not clear what else she needs to do at the club level to demonstrate her capabilities, but perhaps a continued run of excellent form with the Spirit will clarify what many already think: she's one of the best right backs in the world. Looking toward the future, two names worth remembering are Megan Oyster and Katie Stengel. Oyster will be hoping to build on a stellar rookie campaign at center back. Moving up the ranks, she was never touted a future national teamer, but after last year's excellent campaign, it's worth considering whether she might be able to play her way into that conversation. Stengel, meanwhile, is coming back to the US after a reasonably successful spell in Germany. She doesn't have blazing pace or exquisite skill on the ball, but she does offer a bruising strength and heading ability that has been somewhat missing from the national team since the departure of Wambach. I'm not convinced that the US really needs a traditional Number 9. But if they want one, Stengel wouldn't be a terrible fit.
The Flash are in the midst of a youth movement, which means they've got a lineup full of potential but short on sure-things. Sam Mewis is the most likely to make the Olympic roster, and still has an outside chance to crack the starting XI. The key question is whether she can demonstrate improved ball control and game management. At fullback, Jaelene Hinkle has spent the last few months on the edges of the national team, earning a few minutes but doing little to impress. She strikes me as a modest liability on defense who lacks the devastating pace or skill in the overlap to make up for that loss. Still, she's young yet and might grow into the role. A strong performance this year could certainly reopen the question. And completing the trifecta, Abby Dahlkemper is yet another 2015 draft pick looking to play herself into the national team conversation. She spent most of last year pushed outside, which didn't maximize her strengths. But new coach Paul Riley has made it clear that she'll be a center back this year. Look for her to make the most of that opportunity. Along with those three, the Flash also feature the biggest steal of the 2016 draft in Makenzy Doniak, who inexplicably fell to the #11 slot. That's truly absurd, since Doniak is already one of the most clinical finishers in the game, and has plenty of time to improve the other aspects of her game. She's had some injuries and is generally regarded as a bit lacking in the pace department. But I'm a big believer in the idea that class matters more than raw speed. And Doniak is pure class.