2018 NWSL Players to Watch: The Caroline Stanley Edition

NWSL soccer balls. (Shane Lardinois)
NWSL soccer balls.

We invited the irrepressible Caroline Stanley to share her list of players to watch this season in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). Stanley recently joined the women’s soccer coaching staff at the University of Tulsa, becoming the program’s first full-time goalkeeper coach. Prior to her coaching gig, the former USC Trojan played for the Seattle Reign FC, Sky Blue FC, and the Orlando Pride in the NWSL.


Before y’all come at me, most of these players aren’t national team players. Several other lists will have the national teamers high on their radars already so I want this one to be different. These selections are also players who could play at the international level. This is my take on the level in the NWSL — at any moment, many players could play for their country or a country. There’s just that much talent.

This list isn’t organized or categorized in any specific order. Don’t read too much into this.

Some teams don’t have a player. Not because they suck, but because my interest wasn’t piqued by anyone. If a player or two didn’t immediately come to mind then there’s no point in making something up for the sake of writing something about a player or a team. I also didn’t watch preseason games,* so before you come at me with stats and lineups, I’ll say this: Preseason doesn’t mean crap. So here they are!

* Sounds legit. — Editor

Washington Spirit

Aubrey Bledsoe

Aubrey Bledsoe small headshot by Shane Lardinois.Bledsoe has had an unlucky couple of years in the league. She entered NWSL as a discovery player with Sky Blue but was behind Brittany Cameron and didn’t see but a few minutes of action in 2015. Orlando selected Bledsoe in the 2016 expansion draft and spent the season behind Ashlyn Harris. However, when it was Bledsoe’s time to get the nod while Harris was with the U.S. Women’s National Team, she suffered an injury. Damn! In early 2017, Bledsoe suffered a concussion and missed another opportunity to play after Harris went down with a quad injury. People, these chances to step in as a backup, especially behind a tough-as-nails USWNT goalkeeper like Harris, are few and far between.

Bledsoe recovered from the concussion and ended up getting the nod for Orlando for 11 games in the 2017 campaign while Harris recovered. She earned two clean sheets, five wins, and racked up 36 total saves and earned a pair of NWSL Save of the Week honors for some big-time saves, saves that came directly from the huge technical growth she’s developed over the last year.

For 2018, Bledsoe will play for the Washington Spirit after Orlando traded her for Shelina Zadorsky this offseason — a good trade in my opinion.

I predict Bledsoe the starter will have a huge year. Bledsoe has been super SOL* and now it’s her time to get those minutes and show the league what a great goalkeeper she is. If she can continue to read the game and erase minor silly mistakes, she will shine.

The Spirit don’t interest me as much as the other teams and maybe that’s my pessimistic side. Or maybe that’s because since they traded away their entire team, I’ve been in “WTF?! Mode.” But, Bledsoe is my main Player to Watch. I am also looking forward to seeing Mal Pugh with different players around her. After some injury struggles and additional time with the USWNT, I’m hoping she will confidently step into a role where her beyond-her-years vision helps control the Spirit’s offense.

* Sh*t out of luck. Caroline, please. — Editor

Orlando Pride

THIS TEAM IS NUTS, ha ha, with all of the trades they have made, signings, and cuts. This team is star-studded. I’ll make this one brief but I can’t wait to see the starting eleven this squad puts out.

Shelina Zadorsky

Shelina Zadorsky small headshot for Orlando.Struggled a bit last year with the Spirit. I’ve always rated her, so I have no idea what happened in D.C. for her to go from starting captain to the bench to being traded. I think she is solid, athletic, has great vision, and is comfortable on the ball and I’m excited to see her play with solid players around her and doesn’t have to worry about doing anyone else’s job.

Christine Nairn

Christine Nairn small headshot for Orlando.I interviewed Nairn last year and I’m a big fan of this chick. She’s so self-aware, which is huge when a player goes through lulls and can bring themselves out of them. She pulled herself out of a little slump and had a great year with the Reign last year. I predict goals out of this one this year in Orlando. I mean… anyone who can work the ball the way she does and has Marta to create with is bound to get some opportunities. Her shot is so advanced and she knows how to manipulate the ball.

Rachel Hill

Rachel Hill small headshot for Orlando.This one is bizarre to me, and I didn’t really rate her.* She came to Orlando late, is kinda small, not the best technical or tactical skill, and didn’t have the craziest college career at UConn, which doesn’t matter at all, but still put in some nice little goals for the Pride last year. The reason why she’s one of my Players to Watch, though, is more about what she did Down Under where she had a stunning little season for Perth Glory with nine goals! This just shows that some people develop late and learn from being around greatness. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does for Orlando.

* What have we gotten ourselves into? — Editor

Sydney Leroux

Sydney Leroux small headshot for Orlando.Redemption year. She’s with her family settled down in Florida, she’s with a club that is extremely professional, and she looks super fit. There aren’t any more excuses. I think she knows that and is more than ready. I’m predicting she surprises a lot of people and shows them why they became such obsessive “Syd the Kid” fans in the first place. Plus, she’s got that mom strength now. Go on girl, it’s your time.

Utah Royals FC

Retweet to my Orlando introduction. This team is also NUTS. Another holy s*@! this offseason. I won’t go into the sad demise of the Boston Breakers (sorry, @thrace), but Utah made insane offseason moves picking up Breakers players. The Royals are the envy of the NWSL right now with their dedicated ownership, facilities, and monogrammed robes. (Can y’all send me one?)

I wonder what this Utah team will look like. It already looks nothing like the FCKC we saw last year. That team is long gone (cue KC fans crying*). Laura Harvey can conjure up some weird futbol magic so I’m excited to see this team on opening day.

* Why are you like this? — Editor

Abby Smith

Abby Smith.Smith started her pro career in Boston, suffered a freak horrific season-ending injury in 2016, and then came back in 2017 only to miss more time after requiring a platelet-rich plasma injection in her knee. She played great when she did play. I predict she’ll get the starting nod out of the gate for the Royals. I’m ready to see a full season of Smith.


Amy Rodriguez.Duh. Let’s freaking go. That ACL tear brought literal tears to my eyes. I couldn’t believe it happened. Well, it happened. She rehabbed and is back. I am anxious to see Speedy back up top and going at it again. Age is just a number and she also has mom strength (x2). With a new team, coaching staff, new and improved resources (we all saw those robes), I predict Amy will have a big year. Fingers crossed.

Mandy Laddish

Mandy Laddish of Utah Royals in practice.Laddish started her career with FC Kansas City in 2014. A hip injury sustained in 2016 has kept her off the field for two seasons. This is another redemption story. Laddish was a fantastic midfielder for KC. She has spent such extensive time rehabbing that I can only imagine her excitement and readiness to finally play.

Seattle Reign FC

Another bizarre offseason. I won’t even get into this whole coaching swap-a-roo.

Michelle Betos

Michelle BetosWelcome back, Betos. We missed you and your bun. I don’t know if she will be the starter all season, but I predict she will start on opening day. With Aussie Lydia Williams gone for national team duty, Betos is sure to step in between the pipes for a bulk of the year. We know Betos is a ballsy shot-stopper, but the league is already changing and evolving into an even more sophisticated league. I’m intrigued to see the progress she’s made over the last year while being overseas with Vålerenga Fotball Damer and how it will contribute to her game.

Sky Blue FC

Hearing from lots of people this SBFC team will be entirely different. New head coach Denise Reddy has implemented a new style of, well, everything. On the field, I expect to see a possession style of soccer (isn’t that what we’re all trying to play?!) Yes, but Reddy is focused less on creativity and improvisation and more on system and organization. She’s also ensuring players are taken care of in new ways. While it’s still nowhere near where some of the clubs are yet, I know they will have less, um, let’s say, distractions off the field.

There are a million people on this team so I had no idea where to begin. The players below immediately came to mind. Then I thought, Katie Johnson, Savannah McCaskill, Adrianna Leon, Jen Hoy, Janine Beckie, Thaisa Moreno, Christina Gibbons, Rocky Rodriguez… Who the hell will the starters be on opening day? This is a team I am confused by but they have loads of young talent (the bulk being around the ages of 21–23) so I’m am definitely anxious to see who Reddy puts out on the field.

Shea Groom

Shea Groom.Arguably would’ve been Rookie of the Year in 2015 with FC Kansas City if it wasn’t for a pesky foot injury toward the end of the season. She continued to be dangerous, aggressive, and a grade A pest to defenses over the next few years, with 2016 being her most successful season. I wasn’t entirely impressed with FCKC’s offense last year in 2017. However, Groom still managed to have shining moments of opportunity that most of the time she produced herself. I expect her to have more of those opportunities with the likes of Lloyd, Beckie, Rodriguez, Killion around her.

Sarah Killion

Sarah Killion.Killion is so underrated. Although small, she holds her own pretty well. Her vision and ability to thread passes through seams is witchcraft. This year she will have more support, more options, and that will in turn give her the confidence she needs to help lead this midfield.

Kailen Sheridan

Kailen Sheridan.Less is more. I think Sheridan has the ability to be an insane goalkeeper. She just needs to do a little less. Sometimes coaches put it on the goalkeeper to be a leader too early. If Sheridan can continue to learn from the veterans, read the game, make proper decisions, and get the ball off her foot a little earlier, she can take steps to dramatically decrease that GAA from last year. She will have lots of organizing to do as she steps into a new season with more changes to the back line in front of her, but we’ll see more big-time saves from her like we did last year.

North Carolina Courage

The athletes. Literally almost every player on this team looks fit as hell. I’m sure that’s Riley’s running. But this team is filled with athletes. And they’ve only added more.

The Courage are an interesting team. They have so much athleticism, speed, and skill on all three lines. Last year, they virtually had no weak spots within the team. I did feel like they weren’t the deepest squad, but hey, they went to the finals. This year, though, they have lots of depth on offense and defense.

Crystal Dunn

Crystal Dunn.She Dunn did it, she came back to us. So overplayed, but I had to. I am excited (to watch) and so nervous (for other goalkeepers) to watch this Courage offense. It’s going to be a big year for Dunn. She had great seasons with the Spirit in 2015–2016. Mainly in 2015 I felt she was particularly dangerous with the help of the team behind her. I can only imagine how Sam Mewis will position her in front of goal time and time again.

Houston Dash

I don’t know why Houston can’t just be in the top five. I don’t get it. I don’t know why it never works out for them. We all hear about ownership, management,  and so on, but I think this is a huge turning point because players are speaking up and they have a badass coach now. I’m ready to see a Houston team that’s not looked at as such underdogs. Sure, keep that mentality, it helps. But I foresee a more dangerous Dash team than we’ve seen in the past.

Kristie Mewis

Kristie Mewis.Let’s just hope that she doesn’t get traded. I don’t know how people can expect a player’s best on the field when they get moved eight hundred times in one season? I’m not even sure she ever got to fully move at one point in season. Anyway, I still rate Mewis. I think she has lots of talent and can be great for Houston. She can keep the ball, she’s strong, athletic, and has a sick shot. I like her as a holding mid, but she can step into a few different roles for the Dash.

Kealia Ohai

We’re all awaiting theKealia Ohai captain’s return. Her injury was absolutely gut-wrenching to watch, especially since she was having a strong season. However it seems she’s fit and ready to go again. I have no idea when she’s fully cleared for contact or when we’ll see her in a game, but with their captain healthy, I think she’s someone to keep an eye on.

Amber Brooks

Amber BrooksWe all know how vocal she is. On the field, off the field, on Twitter, you name it. Brooks emerged as one of Houston’s best defenders last year (and arguably one of the top defenders in the league). Let’s face it, she got put on an island at times and had to clean up others’ messes, but did it pretty well. She’s gritty and technical and a threat in the air.


Chicago Red Stars

Sam Kerr

Sam KerrNew team, who dis? I’m sure we’ll get the same Sam: dangerous, ridiculous, hilarious, and on her way to becoming a soccer legend. I’m just anxious to see how Chicago’s Rory Dames uses her.




That’s all from me, folks. That was fun! I wrote this without googling stats* or asking anyone anything so if you fact check me or argue about something, I’ll just ignore it because I’m not interested in a debate. I’m just a retired player turned coach writing something different and fun from my perspective. But really love that we’re keeping the NWSL in the media as much as possible. Exposure people! We need it. And I think 2018 NWSL is going to bring some of the most entertaining games we’ve seen so far. I honestly can’t even begin to predict who will be celebrating a championship in October.**

Cheers to watching it unfold!

* We fact-checked. Kinda. — Editor
** September, Caroline. — Editor