Charles Olney (@olneyce): Welcome to the Backline Soccer NWSL opening weekend chat. This week, we’ll go through team-by-team and offer our thoughts, questions, and (if we’re brave) some predictions.
We’ll be going straight down the 2018 table, so that means starting off with the North Carolina Courage. Coming off one of the all-time great club seasons in the history of the sport, will they be able to maintain their form and establish a true dynasty? Or will they slip a bit?
Luis Hernandez (@radioactivclown): After such a dominant performance, I think the only thing that can happen is for them to slip a bit. They are still the top team in the league. No doubt with be at the top of the table by season’s end but with the World Cup I just don’t see the same level of dominance.
RJ Allen (@TheSoccerCritic): North Carolina is going to go back to back in the shield race. They are just so good and so committed to Riley’s system. Plus Lynn Williams is going to have so much fun with backup defenders.
Allison Cary (@findingallison): Yeah, North Carolina will dominate again. No doubt, they’re just too good.
Charles Olney: The one big question for them does seem to be in the spine. There’s a real chance they lose both central defenders and both holding midfielders for several months, with Dahlkemper, Erceg, Mewis, and Zerboni all pretty likely to be gone. That is the heart of the team, and their solid performances have often helped keep everyone else afloat.
Becky Schoenecker (@Beckster20): I think they’ll obviously have the same issues as a lot of the teams will with losing players, but I feel like their depth will be fine and give the opportunity for other players to step up – which I think they will.
Charles Olney: While we’re on the subject, insert my obligatory comment that Lynn Williams feels like someone who really ought to be going to France. More to the benefit of North Carolina that she’s not, but it is a little odd.
RJ Allen: Lynn Willams is behind Morgan and Press. How many of that type of player do you need on the NT?
Becky Schoenecker: With all of Ellis’s ‘experimenting’ I feel like Lynn hasn’t gotten enough opportunities to play that she should have. I can’t say she should be going to France because RJ is right with Morgan and Press, but I feel like she didn’t get a good enough chance to make her case.
Charles Olney: So, the consensus seems to be that Carolina isn’t going to be hit any harder than anyone else by the internationals leaving, and should probably still be considered heavy favorites to finish in first again. Until something actually goes wrong, I think that’s probably the best bet.
What about the Portland Thorns, who finished in a distant second last year, and who will also be missing many crucial players? Do we see them as real contenders or is the gap still pretty large?
Becky Schoenecker: I think the gap is still pretty large for them and that they’ll be the team to struggle the most without their star players.
Charles Olney: I do really wonder who is going to help them build attacks, with virtually their entire midfield gone for several months. And they’ll also probably lose their keeper, who will likely not play a single minute in France but will still be gone the whole time. But even at full strength, I’m still not completely sold on the Thorns. If Sinclair is even a little bit slower, if Horan drops back to merely Great as opposed to MVP-level, this starts to feel like a roster that can’t quite hang with the very best.
RJ Allen: Portland feels like the team that is still that solid second pick for the best team in the league even if when their national teamers are gone they’re going to drop to maybe fifth or sixth.
Allison Cary: Yeah, I’d agree with that. They’ll definitely be hit hard by international absences, but they’re still my pick to finish second or third this year.
Charles Olney: I don’t necessarily disagree – I still have them as a pretty clear playoff team – but they strike me as the team in the league with the most potential to drop off significantly.
RJ Allen: In 2015 the same issue happened, didn’t it?
Charles Olney: Yeah. I think this team is better than the 2015 team. But so are a lot of the other teams in the league. So if they slip up, there’s a lot more room for others to pounce.
RJ Allen: I do wonder how Parsons will handle it from the coaching side. Out of the top coaches in the league I do wonder about his adjustment abilities.
Luis Hernandez: Of all the playoffs teams, I have the least faith in Portland. I don’t think they will be able to overcome the absences due to the World Cup. In fact, I’m calling it now. The Thorns miss the playoffs.
Charles Olney: In third place last year were the Seattle Reign. With their move to Tacoma, it’s now just Reign FC. But do we expect Vlatko Andonovski to keep his team in the playoff spots?
RJ Allen: Losing Rapinoe is tough. One player who does so much when she’s on the field and in a lot of ways is the soul of that attack.
Charles Olney: They definitely seemed to lose a step last year when Rapinoe was out. But I do think that with more time to prepare they might be better set up to handle her loss.
Becky Schoenecker: I think they still have the talent to do so, and with having Betos while Williams is gone will be great for them over break.
Charles Olney: I’m a big Shea Groom fan, as everyone knows, but I think she can perform as a sort of cut-rate version of Rapinoe, which might help them keep the momentum through the summer.
Goals will be tough over the World Cup period, but this is a team that could definitely set up to play some tight games and nick a goal here and there. I like their depleted roster better than Portland’s, certainly.
Becky Schoenecker: I also think Spencer has been getting better every season and she’s capable of getting in behind d’s and scoring.
Luis Hernandez: Last year, I felt the fate of the Reign was dependent on Rapinoe. I think Vlatko has had the time to plan ahead and will be able to weather the storm of World Cup absences. I’m looking forward to seeing Groom back in a system that will use her talents effectively.
RJ Allen: Having some older players in this context does help. Lu Barnes shouldn’t be a defender that breaks down in touch matches the way some rookies may.
Charles Olney: There’s a lot of still-young talent in this squad that hasn’t quite been able to make it stick. Players like Morgan Andrews, Christen Westphal, Darian Jenkins, etc. If they can get good performances out of those depth players, along with solid veteran shifts from the players RJ mentioned, they should be okay. But that’s also a lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes.’ It’s not hard to see the team just struggling to put it all together and getting beat by teams with more contained approaches.
RJ Allen: They are a solid team but a lot of their horse power comes from players that will be gone. They are a bit like cake without frosting. Good but not what they can be.
Charles Olney: Our final playoff team from 2018 was the Chicago Red Stars. They’re on a long streak of making the playoffs, and a long streak of losing their first playoff game. Do you see either of those streaks as likely to end this year?
RJ Allen: I think it very much depends on the World Cup. If Kerr gets hot during it, comes back and stays hot, I think that could push them over. If she doesn’t have a great World Cup she very well might come back a bit dejected.
Becky Schoenecker: I think their playoff streak ends.
Charles Olney: Bold pick!
To me, this looks like the team with the best chance to knock the Courage out of first place. There is a huge amount of talent in the squad, and if they can play like they did in the final 6-8 weeks of 2018, they will be truly formidable. If not…well, Becky might be right.
RJ Allen: I think in 2-3 years, yeah. But I don’t see it for 2019.
Luis Hernandez: Well the Red Stars will make the playoffs again. At least that’s what I think. The key for Chicago to see is how well the team seems to be coached.
Charles Olney: I don’t want our conversation on every team to fixate too much on the internationals leaving, but Chicago is potentially very well placed, with a TON of players who are clearly among the very best non-NT players in the pool. They could potentially run out a midfield of DiBernardo, Colaprico, Brian, and Stanton all summer. That could wreck some teams. That’s very similar to 2015, when Chicago were fantastic during the WC. Less so otherwise.
RJ Allen: I don’t think Morgan Brian matters if she plays like she has been. I think her run of being a top midfielder is all but over. Sadly.
Charles Olney: Brian was excellent in the back half of 2018. If she can’t get on the field, that’s one thing. But she was a big part of why Chicago was playing so well at the end of the season.
RJ Allen: I disagree but I do hope she does well.
Becky Schoenecker: I’m sticking to my sinking ship prediction and saying Houston takes a playoff spot over Chicago. I think aside from North Carolina the last spots are going to be really tight. I agree with Luis that Thorns might see themselves out as well. So there’s a prediction: I don’t think both Chicago and Portland make it.
Charles Olney: Alright, so now we should move into the even more difficult part: figuring out which of the teams who missed out on the playoffs last year might take over one or more of these spots. So, in 5th place last year was the Utah Royals. Will they improve on that performance?
The big question here is seemingly whether Laura Harvey will be able to get her team clicking a bit more after a full season in the job.
RJ Allen: Harvey is always better year two than year old at pretty much all of her coaching jobs. I do think letting Gorry go and brining in Vero is going to help the midfield a lot. And while they will miss a boat load of time Sauerbrunn and Corsie are the best centerback pairing in the league IMO.
Charles Olney: The secondary question is probably whether Amy Rodriguez just needed some time to play herself back into form, and could return as a league-leading striker. If so, this could be a dangerous team.
Luis Hernandez: I have less faith in Utah than I did last year. I don’t think they build the roster well for this year. This is a rare off year for Harvey. I just think the team will run out of gas and not be able to make up ground. They finish 6th in the standings
RJ Allen: I think we’ll know in that first 3 to 5 game window. Harvey has done it before and I don’t doubt she could again. I don’t know though. I think how the midfield flows will say a lot. O’Hara being healthy or not changes a ton for the attack or the 3.5 back they play as well.
Charles Olney: I agree about Vero being a good move. We’ll have to see how it works out – she’s not as young as she once was – but that’s the sort of player they really needed. Another underrated possibility here is Mandy Laddish, who hasn’t played in what feels like a decade, but who is apparently healthy and ready to go. She could be a huge difference-maker in that midfield.
RJ Allen: Mandy Laddish is a player, if after 2 years and two hip surgeries, can come back could be a huge win for the team.
Charles Olney: Doniak is another one there. Great player who is effectively a new addition.
You know, the more we talk about this team, the more I’m convincing myself that they’re a serious playoff contender.
RJ Allen: Press, if she can connect with Vero and her and ARod can form a working relationship, could be a real game changer. When Press is on she is as deadly as any NWSL striker in league history. But they have to do a much better job with her in 2019 than 2018.
Charles Olney: So another popular pick for a potential playoff contender is the Houston Dash. They surprised everyone last year by sticking around the playoff race until the final week and ultimately finishing in a close 6th place – after a preseason consensus that they were among the worst in the league. Will they be able to follow up on that breakout, or will they revert back to form a bit?
RJ Allen: I think they are a compelling team that will end up in 5th at the end of the year and have a real shot at the top 4 in 2020.
Charles Olney: The Dash feel to me like the team with the highest variance in the league. I could see them crushing the opposition all summer, when they have almost a full strength squad, and staying strong to finish in 3rd. Or I could see them wilting and stumbling along to another meek 7th or 8th place finish. Or anything in between.
As with several of these contending teams, they have a new coach, so it will certainly be a big question whether he is able to put his stamp on things.
Charles Olney: The biggest question with Houston has to be the defense. They managed to get by last year with an iffy backline, and without much muscle in the central midfield. Can they keep that up, or will teams finally start to pick apart off the weak spots?
Luis Hernandez: I’m super high on Houston. This is the year the Dash make the playoffs. They seem to have all the pieces in place to be successful. Add to that they aren’t losing hardly anyone to the World Cup. They will be fine.
RJ Allen: Amber Brooks and Kristie Mewis is who that team lives and dies by IMO long term. If those two have great years while everyone is away, they have a real shot.
Charles Olney: I think that’s probably true, RJ. Though you might could say the same about Kealia Ohai and Sofia Huerta. Which maybe demonstrates that Houston has some real flexibility and depth, for the first time in their history.
Luis Hernandez: I understand the defensive concerns with Houston but really it can’t be as bad as it was last year. That in itself is an improvement. I think the back line will be able to figure it out in front of Campbell.
Charles Olney: So, with all apologies to the Spirit and Sky Blue, the final team that seems to be treated as a real playoff contender is last year’s 7th place finishers: the Orlando Pride. After a powerful finish to 2017, they seemed to be primed for a strong season last year, but it never really clicked. Which one is the real Pride?
Charles Olney: As a modest skeptic about them last year, who was never all that surprised that they finished where they did, I haven’t seen anything from this offseason to suggest they will be that much better this time around.
Still, the attacking talent there is outrageous so you certainly can’t count them out.
Luis Hernandez: I was pained to see Sermanni go, but I understood the reason why that had to happen. I’ve seen so much positive from the team now with a GM and new coach. I just think that it’s too soon for those plants to bear fruit. Coach Skinner is installing a very complex system and with the international players coming in and out, I don’t think they’ll be able to make it work consistently this year. There’s a lot to be hopeful in Orlando but they are just going to need more time.
Charles Olney: Everything I’ve heard about Skinner suggests that we’ll be talking about him with some of the top coaches in the league eventually. But it’s probably true that this team needs to take a year to reset before they can really get going.
Alright, we are running low on time, so does anyone have any thoughts about the two hard-luck teams of last year? Surely both will be better. In Washington’s case, because there’s far too much talent in that system to justify finishing as poorly as they did. And in Sky Blue’s case because it’s almost literally impossible to do worse. But how much will they improve? Enough to catch any of the seven ahead of them?
Luis Hernandez: The two worst teams in the league still have a long way to go. The thing about both those teams is they have more what ifs than the rest. We can already sense the wheels fell off the wagon for Sky Blue or are close to that. Washington has a bit better talent, but I have serious coaching concerns
Charles Olney: The little I saw of Washington in the preseason suggests they’re on a more coherent track. And they’re building heavily around Andi Sullivan, which might be what it takes to get a great season from her. If so, they could actually be quite solid in the midfield and attack. But…the defense is really going to be an issue.
Luis Hernandez: If either team has the players lose faith in the coach , things will get worse. The hot seat is more on Sky Blue though since the club fired Tony Novo. The team named Alyse LaHue as interim general manager so to me if the team is bad and a new GM comes in then why not bring in a new coach that the new GM can pick.
Bottom line for me is that Sky Blue and Washington will remain the two teams at the bottom of the table.
RJ Allen: I worry that these two teams are both a year away from not being teams anymore. And that is a lot of pressure to put on a bunch of young players who have a lot of things to worry about overall.
Alright, we are out of time, so will have to hold off any further thoughts on Sky Blue and Washington until next week. Fortunately, they’re playing each other to kick things off, so that should give us a much clearer sense about what sort of improvements they have (or have not) made.
Thanks for reading. And enjoy the return of the NWSL this weekend!