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2016 NWSL Breakout Stars to Watch

A breakout star. That’s a player who takes the opportunity to rise to the occasion, whether people have prior expectations of that player or one that comes through completely under the radar. We have had plenty of both types of breakout stars in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) throughout the league’s first three years, and I anticipate more of the same this year.

In 2016, a breakout player can range from a player building on an impressive rookie season and avoiding the “sophomore slump” to a player coming back from injury to a player who is trying to take advantage of a new opportunity ahead of them. Each team has a breakout player, sometimes more than one, and here are the ones to watch in 2016.

McCall Zerboni
Boston Breakers

It certainly was interesting when Western New York traded away one of its cornerstone players who had been with the club since its Women’s Professional Soccer prior to the 2015 season. McCall Zerboni has always been a constant in the midfield wherever she’s been in her professional career. She’s always a player who isn’t afraid to get into challenges, speed up or slow down the tempo when necessary, and can score the big goal. She had a good season with Portland last year but now with a new-look Boston Breakers team, she can put her mark on Matt Beard’s midfield and has the opportunity to start every match and excel in a deep-lying midfield position alongside former Flash teammate Angela Salem.

Arin Gilliland
Chicago Red Stars

Arin Gilliland was one of the many rookies to make a strong impression in 2015. As part of head coach Rory Dames’ scheme to use her speed and strength out wide, she was able to net a pair of assists and started nearly every game. With the Red Stars playing all their home games on a slightly wider Toyota Park field, she’ll have plenty of space and opportunity to run at defenders. Expect a few more assists from Gilliland this year and potentially her first professional goal as well.

Mandy Laddish
FC Kansas City

Vlatko Andonovski made a gem of a pick when he selected Mandy Laddish in the third round of the 2014 NWSL College Draft. After seeing her game develop in her rookie year despite making just two appearances in 2014, Laddish had a massive sophomore campaign with a goal and three assists. She also had the opportunity to learn from veterans such as Lauren Holiday and Yael Averbuch in Kansas in years one and two of her career, adding to her growth. She’s likely to be the opening-day center midfielder and we’ll see her game rise even more as the every day option in the middle for the Blues.

Stephanie Ochs
Houston Dash

Injuries suck. Plain and simple. After a tough rookie campaign in 2013 with Washington, a move to Houston and a position change worked wonders for Stephanie Ochs, as she was able to use her pace and service to lock down an outside back position. But an ACL injury cut her season short last year after appearing in Houston’s first three matches. Now after a year of recovering and a strong preseason, Ochs is poised to return to her outside back position and excel with a stronger team surrounding her.

Sarah Hagen
Orlando Pride

While in limited duty over the past few seasons, Sarah Hagen did produce with FC Kansas City, scoring eight goals and assisting three more in 26 matches (18 starts). But the goal-scoring consistency wasn’t there like it was during her stint in Germany. But now she’s with a new team and back in a system under Pride head coach Tom Sermanni, who brought her in for a few camps during his tenure as U.S. Women’s head coach. This change, along with the possibility of being one of the go-to forwards for Orlando, could see her hit the back of the net regularly.

Dagný Brynjarsdóttir
Portland Thorns

Rumors swirled for a long time that the former Florida State Seminoles midfielder would land in Portland after quick spells with Bayern Munich and Selfoss in 2015. And finally, Brynjarsdóttir will debut for the Thorns under new boss Mark Parsons. She showed poise well above her years in Tallahassee and was one of the key contributors in Florida State’s 2014 National Championship run and can both score and distribute out of her attacking midfield role. She started in all three of Portland’s preseason matches, indicating that she will be a regular starter under Parsons and if she can replicate her collegiate success, the Riveters will be chanting her name quite often this year.

Caroline Stanley
Sky Blue FC

With Sky Blue seeing zero goalkeeping minutes return from 2015, the No. 1 job has been up for grabs under first-year head coach Christy Holly throughout the preseason. In an interesting move as preseason began, the team announced the signing of Caroline Stanley to challenge draft pick Caroline Casey for the top spot. And after the team’s two preseason matches, it looks like Stanley has won the job. In 2015, the undrafted keeper made one start in Seattle and picked up the win over Boston. In her collegiate days at Southern California, she was a strong shot-stopper and a good organizer of her back line. If she can find that form, along with continuing to develop under former USWNT keeper and current Sky Blue goalkeeping coach, Jill Loyden, there is no reason why Stanley can’t be a standout this season.

Manon Melis
Seattle Reign FC

It was an absolute steal of a move when Sky Blue announced they had signed Manon Melis for the 2012 WPS season. That 2012 WPS season never happened, and we never got a chance to see how good she is. But now, again, I will say that the Reign have made an absolute steal of a move to sign Melis for the season. And she is worth the price of admission when watching her in the attack. A proven scorer in the Damallsvenskan and for the Netherlands for many years, adding Melis to a front line that includes Bev Yanez and Merritt Mathias, along with the ever-present Kim Little sitting in just behind that trio, is a coach’s dream. Don’t be surprised if that group alone nets more than 30 goals with Melis being the leader.

Caprice Dydasco
Washington Spirit

The 19th overall pick of the 2015 NWSL College Draft made just six appearances in her rookie campaign. But the former UCLA Bruin defender is poised to have a big 2016 after a good loan spell in the Westfield W-League, where she featured with the Newcastle Jets alongside Spirit teammate Megan Oyster. With all the speed that the Spirit lineup possesses, expect Dydasco to see a few more minutes on the flank and use that pace to good use under new head coach Jim Gabarra.

Lynn Williams
Western New York Flash

Goals were a big missing piece from the 2015 edition of the Western New York Flash. But now with attack-minded boss Paul Riley at the helm, expect one of the speedier players in all of the NWSL to get more opportunities in front of goal. The former Pepperdine product bagged four goals along with four assists, which tied Samantha Mewis for the team lead. Now with a few distributing options that the Flash have to work with in 2016, don’t be surprised to see Williams benefit from better service and score a few more goals than she did in her rookie season.