Route Two Soccer: 2018 NWSL Season Predictions

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Predictions are a mug’s game, but I’m a mug, so here we are. For these predictions, I’ve assigned an order, and my rough estimation of the chance of each team making the playoffs. What should quickly become clear is that I think this league has four tiers, with clear separation between the tiers but very little separation within them. Ultimately, I see five very good teams in the league and several other solid contenders. Given the cold hard math of the situation, that means that at least one team who projects to be very good is going to miss the playoffs. That’s an unfortunate reality for the team (or teams) who miss out, but it suggests we should be in for an exciting season.

As I go through each team, I’ll first explain why I picked them in that spot and then lay out the best case for why I might be wrong.

Tier One: No Weaknesses

1. North Carolina Courage (80% chance of making the playoffs)

Why they’ll finish first: The defining strength of this team is their depth. Unlike the other title challengers, they aren’t truly dependent on any particular player. While they certainly wouldn’t like to see Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams, or Abby Erceg knocked out by a serious injury, there’s no doubt that they could compensate for the loss of even several key components. I’m not sure any other team in the league can say that, which is why NC is in a tier of their own. The two big questions are how they’ll integrate Crystal Dunn and what they’ll do about the fullback positions. One possible answer to both questions would be a version of a back three—which would keep the defense solid while allowing their wide runners to function more as wingbacks than true fullbacks. But whatever solution they come up with, they should be fine.

Why I might be wrong: Several years ago, the Seattle Reign were a dominant force… right up until they weren’t. Teams often fade more quickly than you’d expect, and North Carolina could be the next victim. It might be unreasonable to expect another career year from Zerboni, or a fully healthy season from Mewis. And if the midfield falters, some of the weaknesses in the back line could get exposed. Their style of play also takes a lot of energy, and might leave them pretty run down by the end of the season. I’d still bet on NC making the playoffs, but it’s not at all impossible to see them struggling across the line, rather than racing ahead to seize the Shield.

Tier Two: Great Teams with Minor Danger Areas

2. Portland Thorns (60%)

Why they’ll finish second: Portland lost a few key players, but has done a lot to make up for it. Andressinha is already good, and surrounded by quality teammates might be on the verge turning into a superstar. Midge Purce could be a huge addition, adding pace and a wide attacking edge. Carpenter, the 17-year-old Australian, is an exciting young talent. And so on. Ultimately, the strength of this team is similar to North Carolina: they can probably survive a few bumps in the road without seriously derailing their season.

Why I might be wrong: There’s enough talent on this team to blow the doors off the opposition. So it wouldn’t shock me to see them take the pole position all season. On the other hand, there are a lot more uncertainties here than they’d probably like. Their setup leans quite heavily on getting strong seasons from players up and down the spine. A long absence from Lindsey Horan could leave them pretty weak in the center of the pitch. Any serious problems with either of the starting center backs could expose the backline. And while there’s a lot of potential in the attack, they don’t really have a surefire goal-scorer. If the offense sputters a bit, and the defense is less solid, Portland suddenly starts to look a bit more ordinary. It would be surprising to see them miss the playoffs, but it wouldn’t be shocking.

3. Seattle Reign (60%)

Why they’ll finish third: Washington is clearly the most improved team this year, but in any normal offseason, the Seattle makeover would be the one that had everyone raving. They acquired two top-level veteran defenders (Megan Oyster and Yael Averbuch), one of the world’s best fullbacks (Steph Catley), a world-class striker (Jodie Taylor), a useful USWNT fringe player (Allie Long), some fantastic depth options (Morgan Andrews, Elizabeth Addo, Christen Westphal), and held onto players like Jess Fishlock, Megan Rapinoe, and Nahomi Kawasumi. Put it together and you have a roster that rivals anyone in the league. Oh, and while they lost Laura Harvey, they replaced her with Vlatko Andonovski, probably the only other comparable coaching talent in the league. It’s still an open question how they manage to put it all together, and it’s not unreasonable to expect some problems as they get started. But this is a very good team.

Why I might be wrong: My prediction puts a lot of faith in Andonovski’s ability to get everything working together. There was a lot of turnover in the roster, and it might not all fit together easily. Further, for all their depth in most positions, the midfield could be a little shaky. If Fishlock were to miss significant time, I’m not sure they have a viable replacement. If the team gels, they could win the league. If not, they find themselves trapped in a bunch of drab 1-1 draws, and end up seeing the playoffs slip just past their grip.

4. Chicago Red Stars (55%)

Why they’ll finish fourth: Losing Christen Press is a huge problem, unless you can manage to replace her with Sam Kerr. That’s particularly true since Kerr seems to fit Rory Dames’s style better than Press ever did. Given that, and given the continuity everywhere else in the roster, it feels like Chicago are in good position to do at least as well as they did last year. However, there are a couple mitigating factors. First, despite all the talent on the roster, Chicago just weren’t actually all that good last year. They made the playoffs, but with a goal difference of just +3. Do that again this year and they could very easily miss out. Second, many of their competitors have improved a lot, making this a bit of a Red Queen race—where you have to run faster just to stay even. Third, Chicago’s luck with injuries for most of last season seems to have truly worn off. They dragged a lot at the end of 2017 and come into 2018 with a host of new ailments. Put it all together and you’ve got a great team which should be fine, but which would be devastated by the loss of Kerr or Julie Ertz.

Why I might be wrong: Sam Kerr is probably the best striker on the planet right now. Put her into a team with a rock-solid defensive unit, and that’s a recipe for a bunch of 1-0 victories. And if Dames can get his offense moving again, they could be truly explosive. On the other side, while it’s pretty hard to see Chicago really struggling this year, there are a lot of good teams in the league. Merely being good might not be enough to make the playoffs this year.

5. Orlando Pride (50%)

Why they’ll finish fifth: Orlando are probably the highest-variance team in the league. It’s very easy to see them blowing teams away and finishing first. It’s also not too difficult to imagine an injury to Marta or Morgan causing the wheels to come off. Remember how much this team struggled at the start of 2017? That could easily happen again. They had a fine offseason, but probably didn’t do as much to improve as some of the other teams around them. In particular, they still have a shockingly weak midfield. They got away with it last year because Marta is Marta. But time marches on relentlessly, and even Marta will eventually start to fade. If that happens this year, it’s hard to see Orlando having enough bite in the midfield to make the playoffs.

Why I might be wrong: I’ve got them fifth, but only 10% worse odds to make the playoffs than the team in second, so it’s important not to overstate their weakness. It wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see Orlando win the league. If Marta and Morgan don’t lose a step, if Krieger continues to be a great defender, if the supplemental players continue to improve, this is a team that no one will want to play.

Tier Three: Lots of Holes, Lots of Potential

6. Washington Spirit (35%)

Why they’ll finish sixth: The Spirit are by far the most-improved team this offseason, having added most of the young USWNT core and a long-time starter for the Canadian team as well. Moreover, they should also improve simply by virtue of escaping from the injury hellhole that defined their 2017. That said, while this team projects to become terrifyingly good sometime very soon, they’re probably not quite there yet. Their attackers are as good as anyone in the league, but it’s still unclear how they’ll actually play together. With a roster this young, it wouldn’t be unexpected to see some growing pains.

But the real danger area is the defense. It’s possible that Rebecca Quinn will be a top-class center back, that Estelle Johnson will play out of her skin, that Meggie Dougherty-Howard will thrive at right back, that Caprice Dydasco will reach her full potential, and that Whitney Church will be primarily a depth option at center back. It’s also possible that Quinn struggles with the physicality of the league, Johnson struggles with her footwork, Dougherty-Howard can’t supply the pace and precision from outside, Dydasco never quite fulfills her promise, and Church is a regular starter. There’s a ton of variance in this team, but unless they can plug some of these gaps, they’ve probably got too many flaws to make the playoffs.

Why I might be wrong: The defense could be even worse than expected. Rose Lavelle might miss tons of time. Their rookie core might take a while to find their feet. There’s basically no chance they’ll be as bad as last year, but it might be asking too much for them to make major improvements now. On the other side, maybe the youth revolution starts firing on all cylinders. Maybe Lavelle is as dazzling as we all hope, Andi Sullivan is a rock in the midfield, and the ridiculous wealth of attackers are enough to overwhelm any defensive frailty. If this team plays to its full potential, they could win the Shield. I’m not saying that is likely to happen; I’m just saying it’s possible.

7. Utah Royals (30%)

Why they’ll finish seventh: Because there are six teams that look better than them. Honestly, that’s really it. There’s nothing wrong with this team, and any squad coached by Laura Harvey is hard to bet against. They just don’t look to have quite as much talent as the six teams I’ve got above them. A lot of that depends on whether they get peak, healthy performances from Becky Sauerbrunn and Amy Rodriguez. Those two performing at their 2015 levels would do a lot to push this team into the playoffs. Even then, there are still some places where this roster looks a little more functional more than it looks dominant.

Why I might be wrong: If Kelley O’Hara is a game-changer and ignites the Utah attack. If Harvey makes a vintage Harvey international signing in June to solidify the team. If Sauerbrunn is a rock in defense. If Rodriguez is a maestro in the attack. If players like Laddish, Kelly, Scott, and Matheson are given a chance to shine. If new acquisitions like Elise Thorsnes and Katrina Gorry acclimate quickly. None of those things would be particularly surprising, and if a few happen, this team starts to look a lot better.

8. Sky Blue FC (25%)

Why they’ll finish eighth: Because it will take most of the season to find the balance they’re looking for. This is a very young roster, and has undergone quite a lot of turnover. Like many teams in the league, they’re ridiculously overstuffed with attackers, but far too light on solid defenders. I do think that the personnel is flexible and talented enough to overcome the apparent liabilities; I just think it will take a while to get things sorted out. In the meantime, this looks like a maddeningly inconsistent team, who will play the first-place team off the pitch one week, only to fall on their face against a last-place team the next.

Why I might be wrong: I make it a point not to bet against Carli Lloyd. For all her flaws, she appears to be an exceptional lead-by-example player. If she is motivated and finds a vein of form, she could help turn the team’s transformation into overdrive. And while the team’s structure doesn’t make a ton of sense on paper, Sky Blue is chock full of massively underrated players. If they are able to find a formation that capitalizes on Lloyd, which lets the young legs do the running around her, and which compensates for the weakness they’ll inevitably suffer in the central midfield, this could be a genuinely great team.

Tier Four: Sigh…

9. Houston Dash (5%)

Why they’ll finish ninth: I already wrote several pieces on Houston, so I won’t belabor the point much here. They’ll finish last because their roster is (much) weaker than everyone else in the league, because their front office isn’t going to do anything to fix those problems, and because it’s exceptionally hard to stay motivated when you’re surrounded by institutional decay.

Why I might be wrong: The problems with the Dash are mostly upstairs. By all accounts, the players and coaches are giving it 100%, and there is a lot to be said for a strong team mentality. If everyone is pulling in the same direction, and if the organizational plans are well-defined, teams that look fairly weak on paper can turn in some impressive results. It would be genuinely shocking if Houston was good enough to make the playoffs, but a solid sixth place performance shouldn’t be seen as impossible.