OGM staffers predictions for year four of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), including individual awards.
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Well, if I put together a playoff group, I say three carry over from 2015 (Chicago, Kansas City, and Seattle) with the newcomers being Houston. I can’t put a finger on why the Dash will be a playoff team but I feel like for the first time in three seasons, Randy Waldrum has all the pieces in place to make a run. I don’t believe they’re going to make the championship game but they’ll get to the postseason for sure. As for the champions, Seattle will get to the final for the third consecutive season… but the winners will be the Chicago Red Stars (gasp). Yes, Rory Dames has believed in a process and building his team from scratch since the beginning. And 2016 will be the season that it all comes to fruition. Mark it here that the title will travel to the Windy City.
Seattle Reign. Third time’s the charm! International tournaments don’t have an effect on the Reign, and as a result, they play with essentially all their big stars on the field all season. Their team chemistry is through the roof. Their coach is a genius. They’ve literally done everything but win the championship. I think they finally break through this season. They aren’t going to be the Buffalo Bills of the NWSL. It’s just unfathomable. (My dream version of this pick is the Chicago Red Stars taking it home off of goals from Sofia Huerta and Christen Press, and Alyssa Naeher holding the shutout.)
Washington Spirit. Oh, we have to justify our picks? This makes it less fun. Okay, Diana Matheson is back at full strength in a midfield that never fully clicked last year but showed glimpses of what it could do. The key here is a healthy Tori Huster, and playing Ali Krieger in her right-back position. Christine Nairn had a terrific 2014 but disappeared in 2015. The Chronicles of Nairnia will be back in 2016, and as she goes, so goes the Spirit. The back line has been fortified* with Canada’s Shelina Zadorsky, who pairs with the criminally underrated Megan Oyster. And Crystal Dunn. While the strategy of the latter half of last season seemed to consist solely of “kick it to Dunn,” new head coach Jim Gabarra has added Katie Stengel, who should help free up Dunn even more, and speedy draft pick Cheyna Williams. These two, along with the return of Laura del Rio and Francisca Ordega, add up to a stronger attack not solely focused on Dunn. If Gabarra and his ever-present backpack can get this scrappy team to find its midfield chemistry and not squander away home-field advantage down the stretch, the Spirit will lift the trophy in Houston (yes, it’s in Houston, duh).
*Editor’s update: furtified
Coach of the Year
JJ Randy Waldrum. Something feels right when talking about the Houston Dash. Randy Waldrum will take this team to the postseason because he has the right amount of youth and experience on that team, with all of them believing in the system he has laid down in Houston. The Dash will have a better run through the Olympic period without their international players as opposed to last year during the World Cup. And something tells me that Waldrum will get a lot out of Carli Lloyd post-Olympics before she gets a well-deserved break at the end of the season, which will be a big factor for the Dash making it to October.
Rachael Tom Sermanni. The NWSL has set a standard of NWSL coach of the year winners coming from team’s that make the playoffs, and despite the fact I don’t have the Pride making the playoffs in their first season, I’m still going with Sermanni. Why? Three reasons: He’s got a proven track record getting the most out of young players; he’s got a squad with several players he’s familiar working with; and I didn’t want to pick the obvious front-runners in Vlatko Andonovski and Laura Harvey. I think the Pride will perform better in their first season than the Dash did, and Sermanni will be a huge reason why. (My dream version of this pick is Randy Waldrum guiding the Dash to their first playoff appearance.)
Brandi Tom Sermanni. Keeping the ship righted for an expansion team isn’t easy, and he has to manage some big personalities in the locker room, too, but Sermanni is a coach who has proven he’s up to the task. Plus, I like how he trills his “Rs” when he says my name.
Rookie of the Year
Janine Beckie take the honors this year. While she will get strong competition from the likes of Raquel Rodriguez and Christen Westphal, and most likely miss a portion of the season due to the Olympics, Beckie’s return on investment will be massive. She has already been in solid form through the preseason with four goals scored through four matches played and has been a force within the front running pairing of her, Rachel Daly, and Kealia Ohai. She may face a little bit of a drop-off after the Olympics due to re-settle in, but if she can get her goal-scoring account opened early and play her part after the Olympics, she will take home the honor.
Raquel Rodriguez. Twice the NWSL ROY award has been handed to a first-round draft pick, and only once has it been handed out to a second-round draft pick (Erika Tymrak, 2013). All three times it’s gone to a rookie on a team that’s made the playoffs. Considering I’m not too high on Sky Blue making the playoffs this year, that’s going to change. There’s a lot of question marks about Rodriguez transitioning to the professional level and even more questions of how she fits into whatever scheme Sky Blue will be playing. It’s a bit of a risky pick, but Raquel is going with Raquel. (My dream version of this pick is a very angry Makenzy Doniak making her mark.)
I like how Rachael is hedging her bets here with her “dream versions.” No one cares about your dreams, Rachael. She is correct, however, with Rodriguez as the Rookie of the Year. Rodriguez has played at the international level for Costa Rica and shown her quality at Penn State. It’’ll be an adjustment with the speed of play, but once she re-calibrates, Rodriguez will be running the show at Sky Blue. Paired with Sarah Killion, this midfield duo could make for plenty of headaches for opposing teams.
Goalkeeper of the Year
The main constant over the first three years of the NWSL in terms of goalkeeping is the solid play of Nicole Barnhart. And why should that change this year? Despite dropping off the U.S. Women’s National Team radar, she has put in consistent performances week in, week out for Kansas City, and is one of the reasons the team is so tough to break down. This season will be a tougher year for the Blues, who are without two key players from a year ago (Amy Rodriguez and Lauren Holiday), and will also go through the similar cycle of multiple national team players leaving the squad for the Olympics. However, Barnie will be able to carry Kansas City through those absences to guide the Blues back into the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
Rachael Nicole Barnhart. All other front-runners are either going to miss time for the Olympics or have preseason competition for the starting spot on their hands. Sure, missing time doesn’t eliminate you from winning an award — just ask Becky Sauerbrunn — but Barnhart in all likelihood will lead the league in shutouts and start almost all of Kansas City’s games. She’s a model of consistency who should play the full season. I wouldn’t be shocked if Hope Solo takes it home, though. Alyssa Naeher will probably be a finalist, but I think it goes without saying she’ll be doing a little less work than she has in past seasons. (My dream version of this pick is Adrianna Franch refinding her rookie-year magic.)
Brandi Ashlyn Harris. Harris hasn’t been getting playing time at the national team level and has seemingly dropped to the No. 3 spot, so I expect her to come out determined as she did in the 2011 Women’s Professional Soccer season after not making the World Cup roster. Though I don’t always agree with the extra mustard she puts on some of her saves, those are the ones that make the highlight reels, and she’s back home in Orlando with an expansion side that will make the most of her shot-stopping skills and continue to add to those highlight reels.
Defender of the Year The Becky Sauerbrunn Award
We get it. Becky Sauerbrunn is one of the best defenders in the NWSL — and the world. So after acknowledging it, let’s pick someone different. I’m going with Lauren Barnes because her play doesn’t get noticed nearly enough as it should and she has been such an important piece in Laura Harvey’s back four. She is strong in the air, clears her lines without issues, possesses, creates chances, and is a calming presence in the back. Therefore, 2016 will be the year of Lu Barnes.
Becky Sauerbrunn. At this point I’m not sure it’s legal to pick anyone else for the Becky Sauerbrunn Defender of the Year award. Just name it after her at this point. Julie Johnston should be in the running here, and Lauren Barnes could certainly be a finalist again. I just can’t pick against Sauerbrunn and sleep well at night. Boring, I know. (My dream version of this pick is Lauren Sesselmann so we can all forget about whatever happened at the World Cup for the rest of time.)
Brandi Ali Krieger. She’s said she’s going for it. I like that. Go on, Krieger. Sauerbrunn gets the MVP this season. I wouldn’t be mad at ya if Lauren Barnes takes it, however, and not just because she’s a Bruin. Barnes is underrated.
Half of the players who finished in the goal-scoring top 10 in 2015 will be taking part in the Olympics, so the winner will most likely be a player who is available for the entire season (don’t tell that to Christen Press, though, who scored 10 goals in limited duty for Chicago in 2015). I’m going to go a little bit out of the box here and give it to Katie Stengel. It’s a long shot but hear me out. Stengel was a standout goal scorer in her days at Wake Forest and carried her form to Bayern Munich, where she was a constant on the score sheet. With the Spirit, she will benefit from playing alongside 2015 Golden Boot winner Crystal Dunn, who will be the focus of opposing defenses, so more chances will open up for Stengel in the lead up to the Olympics. And if she can hit the ground running, the goals will keep flowing, which is why the Golden Boot will return to the nation’s capital for a second straight year
Beverly Yanez. If there was an award for the most underrated player in the NWSL, I think we can all agree Yanez would be a finalist. It’s a small sample size, but the number of goals she’s scored went up from her first NWSL season to her second and I think that trend will continue into her third. There’s no doubt her team will give her plenty of chances to put the ball in the back of the net, and she can be a strong finisher. Her teammate Kim Little will probably take it home with Crystal Dunn presumably missing time for the Olympics, but Yanez was only one goal behind Little last season. (My dream version of this pick is Shea Groom keeping her excellent offseason form in the regular season.)
Kim Little. She’ll have the edge on games over Christen Press. I expect Press to come out swinging before the Olympics to give USWNT head coach Jill Ellis something to think about, but Little will score goals, and lots of them.
I said at the beginning of my predictions that the Chicago Red Stars would win the title, but have yet to win any of the individual awards… until now. Christen Press. There are times we just sit in awe of her ability on the field, and she put us all on alert last year on how quickly she can make an impact in limited time with the Red Stars. Press will have a big close to the season and will score a couple of playoff goals en route to the title, giving her the MVP nod.
Kim Little. For the past three seasons, the Golden Boot winner and the MVP winner have been one in the same. So in reality I should be putting Beverly Yanez here. However, even if Little ends up with fewer goals than Yanez in my scenario, she’s without question going to have far more assists. I think the combination of goals and assists will be taken into account, and Little wins the award. Any player that doesn’t miss time for the Olympics has to have an inside edge, just due to more time on the field. (My dream version of this pick is Christen Press. No explanation needed.)
Brandi Becky Sauerbrunn. A girl can dream, right? I wouldn’t be sad to see Keelin Winters take this either. Without Winters, Little and Co. aren’t as successful. Again, a girl can dream.