Route Two Soccer – NWSL Teams at the Break: Buy/Sell/Hold?


We are now one-third of the way through the season, and things seem to be settling down a bit. While there have been plenty of surprises week-to-week, the league table points toward some broad stability. We’ve got one tier of clear frontrunners, a second group of playoff hopefuls, and a third group of teams just starting to drift away from the pack a bit. 

Still, there is still plenty of time left for teams to shake things up and rearrange the playoff race. So this column will take the opportunity of the break to take the pulse of each team. I’ll also offer my best guess about whether each team is likely to rise, fall, or hold steady from this point out. Just remember: predictions are always something of a fool’s game, so don’t take the bottom line too seriously.

1. North Carolina Courage (18 points, GD +4): SELL

The Courage raced out to an early lead, and have managed to hold onto first place, but that grip is getting shaky. They dominated Portland in their first meeting, offering a great example of how their rambunctious style of play—high-pressing, with a powerful midfield supplemented by two aggressive and uncontainable forwards—can overwhelm even a very good team. However, that style is difficult to sustain over a full season, and teams are starting to figure out how to exploit it. Even when they were playing well the backline was exploitable, and that will be only more true with Kawamura now out for the season. Further, they rely heavily on getting rock solid performances from Mewis and Zerboni. A bad (or even just lackluster) game from either, and their high pressure will get split too often and the whole system could implode.

Still, there is a ton of talent on this team—and they’ve got a coach who seems to be able to get a real commitment from top to bottom. So my ‘sell’ recommendation is only grounded in a sense that they’ll most likely drop out of first place. But even with a bit of regression, this still looks like a solid playoff team.

2. Chicago Red Stars (16 points, GD +4): HOLD

Chicago started out slowly once again this year, but have found a solid groove in the past month. The heart and soul of this team is Christen Press, who has been the league’s MVP through the first third (by a country mile, if you ask me). Even if she wasn’t finding the net, her movement in between the midfield and forward line is world-class. Combined with top-notch dribbling ability and a keen creative sense, she’s been close to unplayable so far this year. Meanwhile, Sofia Huerta is settling in very well to her role of support striker, and the midfield is finally starting to play the sort of smooth-passing possession game that they have teased so much in the past couple years. And it should only improve once they add Yuki Nagasato into the mix.

So why are they only a ‘hold’? Two reasons.

First, for all the talk of flexibility and fluidity in the system, we’ve seen very little evidence that this team really has another look available. While Rory Dames has shifted the personnel around a bit, the vast majority of the time it’s the same classic midfield diamond. It’s a time-tested approach, and fits the players well. But too much predictability will allow other coaches to set their teams up to manage them. They have a target on their back now and it still remains to be seen if Dames will be able to adapt to what’s thrown at them.

Second, the defense remains stingy as ever, and they’ve been getting real value using Ertz higher up. But Johnson/Naughton is merely a good defensive pairing, not a great one. They’ve done well so far, but there is room to exploit them, if anyone is able to figure out a way of consistently piercing that midfield shield.

3. Portland Thorns (15 points, GD +6): BUY

Portland looked like the best team in the league going into the season, and even with some struggles early in the year, they’re still within shouting distance of first place. I don’t expect that gap to last much longer.

Their biggest problems have been, 1) weakness in possession, particularly in building from the back (as NC exposed so well), and 2) lack of width, especially in the back. But there’s clear signs of progress on both of those fronts. In the first case, it’s taken a while for them to get comfortable, but the midfield trio of Henry, Horan, and Long are starting to play up their ability. Meanwhile, the front three has found it much easier to get involved in possession, with Nadim in particular having her best games of the season in the past few weeks. And in the back, Franch seems to have settled down a bit. She’s still not great on the ball, but is no longer quite the same bundle of nerves. As for the problem in width, Klingenberg’s return has been huge. Her weaknesses are well known, but she is a solid player and has significantly improved their control over the left wing. Beyond that, the improvements in midfield possession have also helped here. With Henry and Long looking more confident, there’s been less need for bunching along the central spine, freeing up Horan and the attackers to spread out a bit more going forward—thereby helping to pin the opposing fullbacks back.

Oh, and Portland is about to add Ashleigh Sykes to the mix. And Savannah Jordan. And they’ve also got someone…Tobin something…who has been out with an injury all season but will be coming back at some point, too. I hear she’s pretty good.

Basically, the rest of the league is going to sorely regret not getting more out of Portland while they were stumbling a bit.

4. Sky Blue FC (13 points, GD -1): SELL

It’s been an odd season for Sky Blue, who have been hot and cold, but whose results often haven’t correlated very well with the performances.

They were pretty awful against FCKC but came away with a win. And then they earned six points from back-to-back matches against the tailspinning Houston Dash. Now, those nine points are real and they’re in the bank, but it’s not entirely clear how much those matches tell us about their chances going forward. However, on the flip side, Sky Blue played very well in the opening game, and against Portland in Week 8, but only managed a single point from those two efforts. So which is the real Sky Blue? As always, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

There is certainly plenty of talent on this roster. When Sam Kerr is on her game, she might just be the most impossible player to contain in the league. Sarah Killion has been a rock. Kailen Sheridan has had a standout rookie performance as the keeper. Christie Pearce is one of the best defenders in history, and has barely lost a step. And there are so many young players here who could very easily make that next step up to elite status.

If everything clicks, there’s no reason Sky Blue can’t make the playoffs. But I’m opting to ‘sell’ because it feels like a big ask for everything to click. As it stands, Raquel Rodriguez is a good but limited player, who can step up big at times but is wasteful in possession and a bit slow in her decisions. There’s plenty of skilled attackers here, but not much evidence that anyone knows what formation or structure is going to get them all moving together. And the backline is a ticking time bomb. Kayla Mills is a world-class talent, and (in my mind) a future national teamer. But she isn’t quite there yet. Mandy Freeman should grow into a great defender, but for now has far too many lapses in judgment. As she gets more used to the pace of play (and takes advantage of the chance to play next to Pearce), she’ll definitely improve. But for now, her tendency to step forward and force the rest of her backline to scramble to fill the gap has caused plenty of problems. With Pearce and Skroski, they’ve got two extremely dependable players, but beyond that there’s a persistent chance of serious mistakes.

Ultimately, I expect Sky Blue to play better going forward than they have so far. But I’m opting to ‘sell’ because I think they’re a bit lucky to be this high on the table given the underlying performance. That said, I wouldn’t really be shocked to see them finish anywhere from 3rd to 10th. 

5. Seattle Reign (12 points, GD +6): SELL…BUY…HOLD?

Seattle’s goal difference of +6 (tied for first in league) hints at a team that ought to be primed to rocket up the table. And yet, a third of the way into the season, the Reign have only actually managed to beat Houston and Washington. So until we see some evidence that Laura Harvey’s adjustments are capable of allowing the Reign to flourish against good opposition, it’s going to be hard to avoid thinking of them as flat-track bullies.

Because at the end of the day, this is still a roster casting around a bit for a clear style of play. The bulldozer teams Harvey has built in the past were never based on responsiveness or adaptation. They were simply a reflection of the attitude that the best team can impose its will on a game. For the Reign, that option simply isn’t available anymore in most games. I do have a lot of faith that Harvey will develop methods for getting the most out of the talent that’s here, but so far it’s been very much a mixed bag.

If Katie Johnson can sustain her form and transition into more of a full-time role, that could make a big difference. There is still a ton of creative talent on this team, but they’ve lacked a real focal point. Bev Yanez has notched three goals, but just isn’t the sort of player that can be the fulcrum of an attack. If Seattle wants to score enough goals to compete against the playoff teams, they need someone to draw defensive attention in the center, who can then allow the creative supporting cast a bit more room in which to flourish.

6. FC Kansas City (11 points, GD +0): BUY

Mid-table, with a goal difference of 0. That about sums it up so far. With Amy Rodriguez at the tip of the spear, KC looked like a championship-contender in their first game. Since then, it’s been a slow process of keeping all the leaks plugged defensively and trying to build into a more viable attack. Things looked pretty grim for the first couple weeks, but lately there have been some definite signs of life. Shea Groom has been excellent (even as she’s played through a rib fracture), and the developing partnership between her, Leroux, and Ratcliffe has breathed some definite life into the KC attack.

From top to bottom, this doesn’t really look like the roster of a playoff team. But I’m opting to ‘buy’ because I have a lot of faith in Vlatko Andonovski’s ability to give his players the greatest chance to succeed. The roster is full of limited players, but limited players who always seem to find a way to get the absolute most out of their talents. The central midfield pairing of Scott and Labonta won’t set the world alight, but you can depend on them to get the job done. Ratcliffe was waived by Boston last year (ouch), but has thrived in a role where her work rate and commitment have been given productive outlets. Christina Gibbons is not (yet) a great defender, but she’s been relatively protected and given a chance to capitalize on her superb delivery from the wings.

Plus, I make it a general rule to never bet against any defense with Sauerbrunn, Averbuch, and Barnhart at its base.

7. Orlando Pride (8 points, GD -1): BUY

This was maybe the toughest call for me. I think Orlando has made great strides in the past few weeks, and the return of Alex Morgan really should make a big difference. The underlying problems with this roster aren’t going to get fixed (absent another huge new signing), but—as I wrote a couple weeks ago—Tom Sermanni does seem to have a clear understanding of those problems and is working to address them. And while Marta has been quite good (which has, strangely, flown a bit under the radar), I think she still has another gear which should be engaged as the rest of the team grows more comfortable and aware of her expectations. For all those reasons, I’m opting to ‘buy’ despite not having a clear sense of which team further up the table I expect to fall below them.

8. Boston Breakers (8 points, GD -3): HOLD

They burst out of the gate, to the joy of anyone with a soul, earning six points from the opening three games. Since then, it’s been a different story, with only two lonely points out of the next five games. More worrying, their last two performances have looked a lot more like the 2016 Breakers, as opposed to the high-flying, smooth-passing, confident team that we saw in the previous matches. To some extent, this is simply regression to the mean. To some extent, it’s a matter of teams getting a chance to observe and respond to their style of play, with Operation Don’t Give Rose Space to Run at the Defense now starting to pay dividends. And partly it’s simply a problem of depth. With Oyster out to injury and Chapman out with a red card, Boston’s backline went from surprisingly sturdy to disaster area. It’s also not a coincidence that their other awful performance on the season (week 1 against KC) came with Julie King out. There simply isn’t margin for error in this backline, and anytime they lose a starter, it’s going to cause big problems. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see Christen Westphal mostly work as a center back this year, despite my loud objections to the idea at the start of the season. But there are limits to that success. Westphal supported by Oyster, King, and Chapman—and shielded by the effervescent energy of Angela Salem—has mostly worked. But she can’t keep the defense afloat by herself.

If they can get a healthy backline together again, and avoid any other injuries to key players, the high-flying Breakers that routed Seattle early in the season might well return. But the more likely result is a series of modest results as they settle back into the ‘optimistic rebuilding’ narrative that they started the season with. That might feel like a disappointment after the start, but would still be a huge step forward compared to last year.

9. Washington Spirit (7 points, GD -5): HOLD

Things looked grim for the Spirit to start the season, when a team already expected to do poorly was then battered by injuries. But things have picked up since then, with their recent victory over Houston even lifting them out from the cellar. As I wrote in my analysis of that match, Washington clearly lacks the talent to seriously challenge for a playoff spot, but they appear to be settling into a coherent and workable game plan. Defend deep, stay solid, put pressure on the ball, and then hit hard and fast on the counter.

In fact, if I felt confident that Washington could stay disciplined and really invest in this plan, I’d even be tempted to make this a ‘buy.’ Despite a couple obvious disasters this year, I think this is one of the more solid defensive units in the league (especially once they get Tori Huster and Caprice Dydasco back from injury). I just have a hard time seeing the discipline sticking quite that well. It is exceptionally hard to commit to this sort of approach over the long haul, and there will almost certainly be some backsliding. But if they can avoid it, I genuinely wouldn’t be shocked to see them earn enough 1-0 type results to keep themselves in the playoff conversation through the summer.

10. Houston Dash (6 points, -10 GD): BUY, WITH RESERVATIONS

Houston are a ‘buy’ simply because there is a lot of talent on this roster, and for all of her foibles Carli Lloyd really is the sort of player who can make a big difference. Probably more than any team in the league, the Dash are desperately in need of a coach who can instill some team cohesion and structure. The defense is weak, certainly, but it shouldn’t be this bad. A good coach ought to be able to get them organized and close off the tap a bit. And with the wealth of attacking quality here, that really ought to be enough to keep them mid-table.

We didn’t see much evidence of progress in new coach Omar Morales’s first bite of the apple against Washington. But the international break came at a good time, and may offer a real chance to reset. So the big test will be over the next few weeks. If Houston continues to spin their wheels, continues the cycle of players moving through the defense, and continues to miss good chances, things could really start to spiral out of control. But if they settle on a consistent backline, start to look a little bit better organized, and accept that they don’t have the roster to win the midfield battle, there’s still plenty of time to turn the season around.

And if you want to tell an optimistic story, there is something there to hang your hat on. Even when they’ve been playing terribly, they still have enough creative firepower to generate quite a few good chances. The finishing has been lacking but it’s still a good sign that this team has the ability to hang in games even when things aren’t going well.

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