[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]t’s been a long (and for a lot of players, too long) an offseason, but after a few weeks of preseason training and friendly matches, we’re only days away from kicking off the 2014 NWSL season.With preseasons as a whole, it’s too hard to judge how teams will translate results from exhibition matches into regular season results for a few reasons. Preseason rosters are unsettled as players fight for the last roster spots, so you might never see a consistent starting XI until the opening week. For the most part, NWSL teams schedule preseason friendlies against college teams, with some college teams matching up with the pro sides better than others. College teams might ask to play using the NSCAA’s multiple substitution rule, so it’s hard to gauge how long players can last in matches. In some cases, pro teams will treat matches as opportunities to work on certain aspects of their games or tinker with different formations. Adding all of these variables into the equation, preseason results will vary.
We had our share of lopsided affairs, highlighted by the Portland Thorns outscoring the University of Arizona and Arizona State University teams by a combined 15-0 scoreline. We saw the Reign upend the University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University by a combined 13-0 and the Breakers picked up 6-0 victories over UCONN and Northeastern University. FC Kansas City upended Big 12 Championship finalists Oklahoma State, 10-0. The NWSL’s newest team, Houston Dash, have played a wide variety of opponents in the preseason, ranging from local college teams to a WPSL side to the MLS Houston Dynamo boys academy team. And in the Mid-Atlantic, the college teams held their own against the pros as North Carolina defeated Sky Blue, 2-1; Virginia drew 1-1 with the Washington Spirit; and Penn State played to a 0-0 draw to Sky Blue.
No matter the sport, preseason is all about getting the team ready to hit the ground running for game one. Results in matches hardly mean anything in the long term (though losing all of your games could be a cause for some concern, but no NWSL team lost all of their preseason matches) with the focus pointed more toward team progress and improvement as matches come and go. Each team starts off on Day One with a 0-0-0 record and the same priority: finish the season holding the trophy over their heads.
Off the Field
On Twitter, I alluded to the higher standards this column will have with ranking teams’ social media presence. I’m not just talking about how many followers teams have across platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine and so on). This is about how teams use social media to connect with their fans and the quality of the content being posted.
Coming in as a preseason number one, the Seattle Reign have been the most active on posting consistent quality content. Feedback tells us the “Fresh Faces of Reign FC with Joe Fann” series is one of the highlights in the lead-up to the season. From learning that Kendall Fletcher is a closet gymnast to teaching Japanese international Nahomi Kawasumi the meaning of “amazeballs” to the build up for the first Seattle Reign Band, the content the Reign has been posting on YouTube is top-notch, giving the club the lead going into the season.
Other honorable mentions for the social media top spot go to the Red Stars, Dash and Spirit. The Red Stars were the top social media team in 2013, mostly due to The Ella and Carm Show (and then the spinoff, The Ella and Erin Show), plus a few other nice touches throughout the season. The Red Stars’ Twitter page was always alive and well in connecting with their fans. So far this season, the Red Stars have been quiet on the YouTube front, but the first episode of the KK Cam is out, delighting fans across WoSo as Karina LeBlanc brings her popular video series to Chicago.
Houston has done a nice job so far this preseason, with videos documenting happenings from all their major events, including the expansion draft to Dash Day to many other events. In a late surprise, Houston revealed a preview video of a new season of The Ella & Erin Show (or is it The Erin & Ella Show?), so there will be plenty of content to look forward to on YouTube this season.
Meanwhile, the Spirit, though absent from YouTube so far, has increased its Twitter activity, mostly due to Head Coach Mark Parsons’ Twitter, as well as various chats with several Spirit players as part of its Spirit Ambassadors program.
The current social media presence rankings:
Seattle Reign FC
Chicago Red Stars
Portland Thorns FC
FC Kansas City
Western New York Flash
Sky Blue FC
Outside of the obvious reason for the cookie cutter designs for 2013, we have some originality, some bolder designs and some unique color schemes for the 2014 kits. So far, the kit of the season has to be the Chicago home version with the light blue and white hoops with a close second going to the Reign’s black and blue home kit. After that, the rest of the kits across the league look pretty standard, but still much better than the 2013 standard. Once all the kits are available to purchase, expect an increase in jersey sales for 2014.
Match to Watch
Boston Breakers vs. Seattle Reign FC
Sunday, April 13th
The theme of Seattle’s offseason was overhaul, both the roster and team direction in righting the ship from 2013. Now, the speculation of how the Reign will do on the field comes to an end and it’s time to see if the hype translates into reality. You can’t deny the strength of Laura Harvey’s roster on paper — it would be foolish to do so. But the Breakers have a quiet confidence within their side that they can go to Seattle and get three points, which is on reason this match is so intriguing to watch. One key factor to watch is how Boston will use Lisa De Vanna. With De Vanna only available for a handful of training sessions due to her commitments with the Australian National Team, there still might be some work to do before everyone in Breakers’ blue integrates and becomes familiar with how to play with the dynamic striker.
2014 NWSL Champion
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The current issue of Our Game Magazine contains my NWSL Preview as well as input from four soccer journalists. You can see which team they picked to be the 2014 NWSL Champion in the Who’s Your Pick? sidebar.
I didn’t include my pick for the 2014 NWSL Champion, but with a couple days before the season starts, it’s the perfect time to break my silence.
I see all but two teams contending for the four playoff spots heading into the last three weeks of the season. Judging by how close some of the teams are in comparison, we probably won’t know which team will clinch the last spot until the last weekend of games. The Flash will retain their regular season title. The Flash don’t lose at home and its roster from top to bottom is deep, meaning the team will still be a threat without its national team players. The Thorns get the two spot with the Reign close behind at number three, setting up a Cascadia Clash in the semifinals. I’ve been tossing around the fourth spot for awhile but I’ve settled on the Spirit as the last team in.
The first semifinal will pit the Flash at home against the Spirit. Last year, the Spirit were outscored by the Flash, 1-10, in four matches and outside of a 1-1 draw in the early part of the season, were outmatched in every game. This year, things will be different with the overall firepower the Spirit have as they’ll travel to Rochester and beat the Flash to advance to the finals. The second semifinal will give us the Thorns against the Reign in the biggest of all US soccer rivalries. Mark my words, the Thorns will win a title with Paul Riley as their manager — just not this year. The Reign will outlast Portland in extra time, clearing the way for a Reign-hosted final against the Spirit.
It would be a fitting way to end this season, to see the two worst teams from 2013 record-wise in the final. Both teams have spent the offseason restocking their rosters to make their sides more potent and lethal. The Reign have made it clear they want to be one of the best women’s clubs in the world and the Spirit have 11 players who are current fixtures on national teams.
Anything can happen when two road-tested teams with deep rosters meet in a championship match. In the end, Seattle Reign take home the title in a brilliant, extra time thriller.
Enjoy the season, folks.
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The following is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared in Our Game Magazine, Issue 22, Spring 2014.
Who’s Your Pick?
We asked some of those who cover the women’s game to weigh in with their thoughts on the upcoming season. Thank you to the following for contributing:
Sarah Gehrke (@Sarah_Gehrke) – Senior Women’s Staff Writer, The Soccer Desk
Charlie Flowe (@DjFlowe) – Host, World Sports Show
Caitlin Murray (@wosocait) – Reporter, Soccer By Ives
Which two teams make it to the final? Who will win and why? SG: Though both Portland Thorns FC and FC Kansas City were in the playoffs last year, the reason I see both making it to the final this year is that each team has made crucial adjustments in the offseason. Meanwhile, the other playoff teams from 2013 haven’t made any substantial changes to suggest a stronger finish in 2014. Ultimately, I see the Thorns defending their championship because Paul Riley will implement a system and approach that allows the team to play more fluidly and cohesively. CF: The easy pick is Portland and Seattle… so I’m going to do some thinking and say Western New York and Sky Blue FC. I think the Flash will win it all this season. If I know one thing, it’s that Aaran Lines can coach a winner at any level and he came up just short last season. His team is eager to get back on the pitch. CM: History tends to repeat itself and after four consecutive final appearances, I think the Western New York Flash will be there again in 2014 for a rematch against the Portland Thorns. With Paul Riley taking over the Thorns and the Flash in little need of tweaking, there’s no question these teams can’t land in the championship again. I give the edge to the Flash. They were the best team all last year until the end and will be keen to take the title they deserved. SL: My heart is with FC Kansas City, however, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Cascadia Clash the last weekend of August with Seattle heading to Portland to play for the title. Laura Harvey has assembled a very competitive Seattle Reign squad that should keep them a staple atop the league table this season. In the end, I see the Thorns defending their title, as long as they can keep their team healthy.