Can North Carolina continue their incredible run?
Last year, the North Carolina Courage’s completed the most impressive season in the history of American women’s soccer. This is a bold statement, considering the star-studded lineups possessed by some other teams from the past—most notably the 2014-2015 Seattle Reign, the WPS-era FC Gold Pride, and a number of WUSA teams able to draw from the very best players in the world. But the Courage stand above the crowd. Not just for their dominant record, good as it was. And not just for the strength of their roster, though it’s a great roster. But North Carolina is the greatest because of the full team dynamic, which lifted a group of stellar individual players up to become an unstoppable force.
The big question now is whether they can keep the magic alive. It seems impossible to imagine them maintaining the same levels of dominance – if only because the team will be splintered for several months during the World Cup. But based on their performance last year, I wouldn’t bet against the Courage finding a way to continue their obliteration campaign.
Who will step up as the next big star?
In 2015, Crystal Dunn was the final player left out from the World Cup roster. She responded by running roughshod over the league all season. There’s no guarantee we’ll get something similar this year, but there are plenty of candidates who might just seize the opportunity to take center stage and show everyone what they’re really capable of. Lynn Williams is one obvious possibility. It’s never been clear to me why she fell out of the national team rotation in the first place, but her skills are unavoidable. We might just see her improve on her Golden Boot winning campaign a few years ago.
Can Houston take the next step forward?
Many people seem to have Houston as their dark horse candidate to upset the playoff hierarchy, and there’s good reason for thinking so. After entering the 2018 season as a consensus pick for bottom of the league, they showed everyone just how much punditry and predictions should be trusted—performing strong all season and staying in the playoff hunt until the final weeks. This year, with a roster that will be less hit by the World Cup than most, they could level up again.
But there are also reasons for concern. All accounts so far suggest a positive environment around new head coach James Clarkson, but change always invites the possibility of breakdowns or disruptions. Something could go wrong there. There’s also the question of whether the Dash’s offseason moves to remedy some of last year’s weak spots will pay off. Is Sophie Schmidt the answer to a soft central midfield? Maybe. But she’s not the player she once was, so that comes with some risk. Can Ari Romero and Satara Murray shore up the defense?
There’s also the reality that Houston probably overperformed last year. Luck tends to even out in the long term, but one season isn’t necessarily long enough for it to show. So it’s possible they’re in for a bit of regression. On the other hand, as they say, good teams often find a way to make their own luck. So it’s going to be exciting to watch, and see whether their success truly was a bit lucky, or whether it was simply down to resilience, perspiration, and class.
How will the Reign enjoy their new home?
The Reign have moved to Tacoma, and it will be fascinating to watch how the transition goes. It’s an important test for a two reasons. First, Seattle has long been one of the strongest independent teams, but in spite of their success they faced structural problems. This move to Tacoma seems to have shored up those issues, and kept the organization on track. If they can succeed, that could be a good sign that independent ownership really can work. Second, Tacoma is an interesting city for a women’s soccer franchise. It has a reasonably dense population center, and can draw in a huge population base from the broader metropolitan area. But it’s also small enough that the Reign will instantly be one of the biggest draws in town. If they can build a good relationship with their new city, that could be a sign that league expansion might succeed best in cities that aren’t already saturated in sports franchises.
Can anyone displace the top 4?
At the moment, he four playoff teams from 2018 look like strong contenders to reach that status again this year. In an offseason that didn’t feature much movement, it’s hard to identify one of the five who were outside-looking-in that looks especially primed to knock any of the top teams out. One of the NWSL’s big selling points, compared to other top leagues in the world, is the degree of parity among its teams. But there actually hasn’t been that much movement at the top in recent years. Will this year be any different, or will we just get another season of the likely contenders coming out on top?