NWSL Preview: Thorns, Flash enter season as title favorites

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By MIKE McCALL

It may not generate huge crowds or giant TV ratings, but the dawn of the National Women’s Soccer League season this weekend is a crucial one for the future of the U.S. women’s national team, as well as the sport of women’s soccer.

The eight-team NWSL is the latest attempt at an American women’s pro soccer league, following Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-11) and the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-03), but there’s a key difference this time.

U.S. Soccer is running the league, and along with the soccer federations from Canada and Mexico, they’ve allocated their national team players to NWSL teams and will subsidize their salaries, which helps teams enlist world-class talent at affordable prices. With an eye on sustainability, player salaries are being kept very low, ranging from $6,000 to $30,000.

That kind of commitment underscores what this league means to the national team programs of those three countries. After all, it’s hard to stay competitive internationally when your players can’t get regular minutes against top competition, and that’s exactly what the NWSL aims to provide.

The action kicks off Saturday night with the Portland Thorns at FC Kansas City, followed by three Sunday matchups: Seattle Reign at the Chicago Red Stars, the Western NY Flash at Sky Blue FC, and the Washington Spirit at the Boston Breakers.

It’s the beginning of a four-and-a-half month road for NWSL teams, which will play 22 games each, aiming for a top four spot to advance to the playoffs.

Here’s a look at each team heading into the season, organized by their opening matchup:

FC KANSAS CITY vs. PORTLAND THORNS FC (Sat., 7:35 p.m.)

FC KC: This team has quietly built a solid roster. Their U.S. allocations weren’t splashy, but they’re reliable: goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, defender Becky Sauerbrunn and forward Lauren Cheney, who will be a player to watch after stronger and stronger performances for the national team. What’s more, they picked up two young talents in the draft via midfielders Kristie Mewis — another national teamer — and Erika Tymrak. This team isn’t in the spotlight and doesn’t have huge stars, but it can certainly challenge for a playoff spot and title.

THORNS: Meet the Yankees of NWSL, the team that will go everywhere with a target on its back. Ever since the international player allocations were announced, the Thorns have been heavy title favorites. Their haul included U.S. star forward Alex Morgan, U.S. defender Rachel Buehler, playmaking U.S. midfielder Tobin Heath and Canadian captain Christine Sinclair. While Heath won’t arrive until her obligations are fulfilled with Paris Saint-Germain, that’s the foundation of a loaded roster, and there will be plenty of pressure to perform — not to mention the reported 7,000 season tickets that have already been sold.

CHICAGO RED STARS vs. SEATTLE REIGN FC (Sun., 5 p.m.)

RED STARS: It could be a rough year in the Windy City. Of their U.S. allocations, only midfielder Shannon Boxx will suit up, and while still solid, she’s 35. The other two won’t be around, as defender Amy LePeilbet suffered a knee injury and midfielder Keelin Winters was traded to Seattle. Mexican forward Maribel Dominguez will be leaned on for offense, as will forward Ella Masar, and No. 1 overall draft pick Zakiya Bywaters should provide some excitement. But on paper, the Red Stars have one of the toughest tasks ahead.

REIGN: Like its opening opponent, the Reign won’t reap the full rewards of its U.S. allocation. Goalkeeper Hope Solo is battling a wrist injury, forward Amy Rodriguez is pregnant and will miss the season, and midfielder Megan Rapinoe won’t join until the summer when she’s done steamrolling the rest of Europe with juggernaut Olympique Lyon. The midseason returns of Solo and Rapinoe would make this a dangerous roster, but for now, Seattle will rely on Mexican midfielder Teresa Noyola — a former MAC Hermann Trophy winner in college — and former Penn State star midfielder Christine Nairn.

SKY BLUE FC vs. WESTERN NY FLASH (Sun., 6 p.m.)

SKY BLUE: The U.S. trio of goalkeeper Jill Loyden, defender Christie Rampone and Kelley O’Hara (who will play forward), gives Sky Blue FC a strong backbone, although Loyden will be out a few weeks due to injury. But it might take huge efforts from O’Hara and the 37-year-old Rampone to keep them in the title hunt, although it’s probably best not to bet against Rampone, whose previous stint with Sky Blue FC led to a 2009 championship while she served as player-coach.

FLASH: The Flash are another club with a target on its back, for multiple reasons. First, they have won titles in three leagues over the past three years: the W-League, WPS and WPSL. Secondly, while former stars like Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair and Marta are gone, hometown hero and FIFA World Player of the Year Abby Wambach will suit up to lead the front line. Add in talented young goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd (who’s recovering from injury), Spanish forward Adriana (a former FC Barcelona player) and Mexican forward Veronica Perez, and there’s plenty of reason to think the Flash can go four-for-four.

BOSTON BREAKERS vs. WASHINGTON SPIRIT (Sun., 6:30 p.m.)

BREAKERS: Between U.S. forward Sydney Leroux, Australian forward Kyah Simon and U.S. midfielder Heather O’Reilly, there’s plenty to be excited about with the Breakers’ attack. The question is on defense. Heather Mitts retired, leaving Cat Whitehill tasked with pulling together the back line. What’s more, Boston only lists four healthy defenders on its roster, meaning lots of pressure on Leroux & Co. to pour in goals at the other end.

SPIRIT: The Spirit have the opposite problem. Washington was allocated top defensive players: goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris and right back Ali Krieger from the U.S., then defender Robin Gayle from Canada. Beyond that, they signed Canadian defender Candace Chapman, and they’ll have a trio of international midfielders in Lori Lindsey (U.S.), Diana Matheson (Canada) and Lupita Worbis (Mexico). The questions are up top, where Washington has a crop of talented youngsters in Stephanie Ochs, Tiffany McCarty, Caroline Miller and Colleen Williams. All four have solid track records at the college level, and Ochs is coming off an MVP performance with the U.S. Under-23 team at the Four Nations Tournament, but the lack of experience is a concern.

What do you think? Expect the Flash and Thorns to crush the competition? Do you see a dark horse emerging? Think the NWSL can do what its predecessors couldn’t by sticking around?

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15 Responses to NWSL Preview: Thorns, Flash enter season as title favorites

  1. Roger says:

    They need tighter shorts

  2. CubesCompanion says:

    I think KC are going to be more dominant then the Flash. They are a very balanced and deep team. With such small teams (18-20 players) and almost a third of everyones team being absent on international weekends makes that very important. If the Thorns can keep their defense from falling apart then they will be unstoppable, if they cant then I see KC taking the title. Flash will be consistantly good but I dont see them having too much success against the above teams.

  3. jones says:

    Just wanted to pop in and say thanks for covering this league – I’ll definitely be following.

  4. B16 says:

    What does the Thorns’ sideline mascot look like?

  5. Joe says:

    Other new teams will include the Detroit Dykes and the Boston Butches.

  6. Sircon says:

    The salaries have gone down for this new women’s league. Thanks, Obama.

  7. Matt Ryan says:

    I think the Thorns have been penned as favorites since allocation day, but have been intentionally hampered by the league since, with the last of 8 picks in each round of both drafts. Then the Thorns didn’t really make any big splashes in discovery/free agent signings. With Heath gone in Paris, Portland is left with a good keeper in LeBlanc, a great CB in Buehler, and a world-class forward line. The midfield is an unproven question mark, but could prove dangerous if Allie Long can live up to her #10 jersey number and Becky Edwards can be a really solid D-Mid.

    I feel that FCKC has a higher number of high-level players, with 6-8 positions of strength, including the Mexican Intl Forward who scored six goals in one pre-season game, and later added Casey Nagueira (now Loyd), and of course has Melissa Henderson and Mewis. They have the best available USWNT GK in Barnhart and a starting CB in Sauerbrunn. KC is stacked.

    I’d have a pre-season power ratings of
    1. FC Kansas City
    2. Portland Thorns
    3. WNY Flash
    4. Sky Blue FC
    5. Chicago Red Stars
    6. Washington Spirit
    7. Boston Breakers
    8. Seattle Reign

  8. Steve C says:

    Sky Blue FC could be a dark horse especially with the signings of Australians Lisa De Vanna and Caitlin Foord. Watch out for allocations Sophie Schmidt and Monica Ocampo. Depending on how the midfield can control the game, SBFC has a dangerous front line and a solid defense.

  9. Prettypenguin says:

    In true Portland fashion, the Thorns come from behind to draw 1-1.