The third season of the National Women’s Soccer League will kick off with the Houston Dash hosting the Washington Spirit at BBVA Compass Stadium on Friday. The 2015 NWSL campaign will be an unprecedented one, and perhaps at times, a wild and crazy one, as teams fight for one of the four playoff spots available while balancing hectic schedules and changing rosters around this summer’s World Cup.
There are several questions to answer this season: Can FC Kansas City repeat as champions? Will the Seattle Reign respond after falling one step short despite a terrific 2014 regular season campaign? Which teams will be hurt the most without their national team players and which teams will thrive? Can the young talent on the Western New York Flash roster put it all together and return to the playoffs?
Here’s what to look for throughout the season:
Can FC Kansas City Repeat as Champions?
When the month of June rolled around in 2014, FC Kansas City’s record stood at 4-4-3, an average record but nothing worth shouting about. The team had a lack of identity and was far from the style of play that brought the team success and rave reviews in 2013. But the Blues rattled off five straight wins and shot back up to the top of the table. After a rude wake-up call in mid-July courtesy of the Portland Thorns — in which the team surrendered seven goals at Providence Park — Kansas City found its form and didn’t miss a beat after thereafter. An in-form Amy Rodriguez, a midfield duo of Lauren Holiday and Erika Tymrak that picked apart opposing defenses, and a strong defense lifted the squad to the championship and defeated a strong Seattle Reign team en route to the title. Like the majority of teams, the Blues will miss several key players (Holiday, Rodriguez, Becky Sauerbrunn, and new addition Heather O’Reilly) due to national team duty during the World Cup. It will be a challenge for Vlatko Andonovski to fill the void those players leave behind, especially that of Rodriguez and Holiday. The duo combined for 26 of the team’s 39 goals in 2014, while contributing 13 assists. Kansas City will be poised for another championship run, however, if it can maintain a position in the top half of the standings until its roster is back to full strength. And if Rodriguez and Holiday can produce similar results to what they did in 2014, FC Kansas City will lift the championship trophy once again.
Will Seattle Challenge Again?
Yes, the Seattle Reign will make the playoffs this year, but the team won’t have the success it did in 2014. The loss of Nahomi Kawasumi is one reason. While Kim Little was the engine of the Reign in 2014, Kawasumi was the unsung hero. She found pockets of space on the right flank to make the right runs or play the right balls when given the opportunity. She had a brilliant campaign last year but won’t be returning this season. The team made a blockbuster trade, sending Sydney Leroux and Amanda Frisbie to the Western New York Flash for Amber Brooks and the rights to Abby Wambach, who has said she won’t play in the NWSL in 2015. The other question mark is where will the goals come from outside of Little’s 17 goals, of which six were from the penalty spot. The Reign are solid in defense but they’ll still need to replace the 14 goals Kawasumi and Leroux scored in 2014. Those aspects, and barring Laura Harvey making another blockbuster trade to answer those questions (which, to be fair, is entirely possible and probable), the Reign will find it harder this year to make it to the top.
You Can’t Win It All in June,
But You Can Certainly Lose It
How teams will handle the middle portion of the season when national team players are at the World Cup is a huge concern. Teams will have to dig deep into their reserve systems to fill roster spots and overall team cohesion and performances may be sluggish and out of sync at times. We should, however, also talk about what teams will need to do to stay alive in the playoff race until players return from national team duty. With national team players available for NWSL action until early May, teams will then have to play anywhere between six to eight matches at less than full strength. Losing or squandering points during this stretch will undoubtedly affect the standings. Here’s safe prediction: Team(s) that can win at least 50 percent of their matches during this stretch will make the playoffs. If teams struggle to earn points during this time, they may find themselves in a hole too deep to climb out of in the last two months of the season. Which brings me to this point…
Teams that Don’t Lose Players During the World Cup. Is that an Advantage?
To a small degree, teams that retain most of their entire rosters during the World Cup will have an advantage over others. If you look at the Boston Breakers and Western New York Flash, they could lose just a player or two during the World Cup. On the other end of the spectrum, teams such as the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars will be without up to nine full-time players. So yes, if a team such as Boston, which plays each of the 2014 playoff teams once from May 9th through the end of June, can take advantage of the opportunity with the full complement of players and take points, it will be in prime position for a playoff run.
Can a New-Look Western New York Flash Return to the Playoffs?
After last season’s seventh-place finish, it was clear the Western New York Flash organization needed to make changes to ensure it didn’t happen again. For an organization accustomed to winning titles (2010 USL W-League Champions, 2011 Women’s Professional Soccer Champions, 2012 WPSL-Elite Champions, as well as the 2013 NWSL regular season champions), seventh place wasn’t going to cut it. Of the 22 players who suited up for the Flash in 2014, just four players are returning to Rochester for 2015, and a new wave of players and coaches have been brought in. Charlie Naimo was hired as the team’s Technical Director and the Flash, as expected, drafted very well this past January, adding youth to an experienced roster. Can this influx of untested talent, plus the addition of Whitney Engen in the back and Sydney Leroux up front, mesh quickly enough to produce quality results on the field? With Naimo’s previous track record of success, the stewardship of head coach Aaran Lines, and the tradition the Flash have of winning titles, it’s very possible they can make the playoffs.
2015’s Under-the-Radar Theme
Keep an eye on Sky Blue FC’s center midfield this season as it will be manned by Katy Freels and rookie Sarah Killion. This pairing could turn out to be one of the most lethal duos in the league in terms of passing and tempo-setting abilities. Freels has been an underrated stalwart for Sky Blue in the past two seasons. With Sophie Schmidt leaving the club, Killion will have some work to do to fill the void Schmidt leaves behind, but the UCLA graduate has what it takes to thrive in the NWSL. Sky Blue will still have to work to make the playoffs but these two players will be strong from the beginning of the season.
The Commish on Expansion and Broadcasting Deals
On Tuesday, new NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush spoke to the media to kick off the new season.
On the current status of the NWSL:
“I can tell you that I am very excited and very passionate about where we are as a league. I had the opportunity to spend time with each of the nine clubs, and I can tell you that the dedication and belief in what we’re setting out to accomplish, both on the field and off and in the front offices and our coaching staffs, is something to be proud of and excited of, and I am very much looking forward to the season starting […] I find the league to be in a very strong position and very optimistic in where our future will unfold in front of us.”
On future expansion plans:
“There’s been a tremendous amount of interest and certainly, some of that has been public and some of it certainly quite private at this point as well. I would simply say a couple of things. Again, I’m going to be in Houston this Friday. We have our annual spring board meeting in Houston in anticipation of this game, and certainly expansion will be a significant amount of that meeting and a high amount of time being put into it. I would anticipate coming out of this meeting with a more defined and definitive timeline. But, no question, expansion is a priority; there is no question that there is a significant level of interest that I would anticipate expansion in numbers somewhere in the next couple of months that we would be able to announce definitive plans going forward.”
“It’s something we take very seriously, that also, as the rest of our board members will be able to speak to, it’s all about having the right owners around the table, the right markets, the right venues, committed to our game, passionate about our game. And so rather than timeline dictating it, it’s about making sure we have the right people involved in a long-term strategy.”
On 2015 broadcasting deals, which will lean heavily toward broadcasting games after the World Cup:
“[…] we are very much in the final run of the negotiations to get a deal done and get it announced.”
A Look Ahead
I’ll be switching to a feature-based column that will come out every other week during the regular season. Each entry will have a feature from a different team highlighting a player or a theme. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy what’s to come.
Until then, enjoy opening-weekend action of the National Women’s Soccer League!