With just a week to go until the start of the 2017 NWSL season, it’s time to meet the Boston Breakers. If you saw the Breakers play in 2016, the blue kit will look familiar, but most of the women wearing it will not. No more than eight players will return, and that number may drop even lower this week. Since last year’s squad struggled to find a way to win, the roster turnover was expected and necessary. The new-look team may take some time to coalesce, but they’ve looked sharp and dangerous in training. Jump on the bandwagon now, because this side is going to (no, I will not write “make waves” here) move up the table this season.
Best Laid Plans
Coach Matt Beard struggled last year to field a unit that could consistently play as a whole. His attack would look good, but the defense would surrender silly goals. The midfield would control the game, but his forwards couldn’t find the net. He played his exciting rookie keeper only to have her shred her knee in her second appearance. His first choice netminder Libby Stout, who he’d imported from his Liverpool Ladies squad, was injured off and on for much of the year, requiring him to sign an emergency option to play half the year. By the time Natasha Dowie arrived, the year was largely lost and her goal scoring only made one wonder what might have been if she’d been present all season. But with a year under his belt, Beard’s approach in 2017 looks to be very different.
Zero Non-Roster Invitees
Most teams in the league bring unsigned players into camp to compete for spots. Not this year’s Breakers. Beard hosted only the players he’d recruited, retained or drafted. He’s spent the spring getting players used to their roles and building their rapport with one another. From what I’ve seen in training, the strategy is working. It’s an attack-minded squad, skilled at connecting one-touch passes through the midfield and to the forwards. The defense was intentionally constructed of players Beard rated highly, and though many outside the team have questions about the defensive roster, it would be hard to be much worse than last year. The hope is that any questions about a suspect defense will be answered by out-scoring opponents.
Here’s the squad, line by line, at the moment.
Abby Smith has recovered from the nasty knee injury suffered last year and looks like a solid number one during the preseason. She’ll initially be backed up by 2017 draft arrival from USC, Sammy Jo Prudhomme, who signed her first pro contract on April 4th. I’d thought that Prudhomme would likely to start the year with the reserve squad, but Libby Stout has been unable to do much in camp this spring due to injury. Stout carried a few injuries in 2016 and despite her history with Beard at Liverpool Ladies, she may end up without one of the initial 20 roster spots when push comes to shove. But, since teams can get roster relief at the GK position for injuries, I don’t expect Stout to be cut. Final rosters will be released on Monday, so we’ll know soon enough.
Boston started Julie King, Whitney Engen, Kassey Kallman, and Mollie Pathman / Brooke Elby across the back for much of the season last year. King is still here, but she’ll have new partners, and possibly a new defensive shape in 2017. I’d expect Canadian Allysha Chapman to start opposite King outside, with Megan Oyster and someone else in the center. This will probably be either Christen Westphal or Amanda Frisbie. But Beard will tinker with this line until something sticks, so it’s possible I know as much as Jon Snow about the Breakers defense: nothing.
— Our Game Magazine (@OurGameMagazine) April 7, 2017
Westphal didn’t get much of a chance at CB last year, but spent most of her Florida career there. Beard hasn’t had her spending much time at CB this preseason, so he may move some pieces around and keep her earmarked for the outside. Frisbie has bounced around a bit, but had a good season last year with Stjarnan in Iceland, winning the Úrvalsdeild Championship. She’s been limited in camp with a hip injury, so I’m not sure who to expect to see paired with Oyster for the opener if the team lines up with four across the back.
Other options include returning Breakers Brooke Elby and Kylie Strom. I think Elby has plenty of talent to play outside, but she needs to learn how to take care of her body during a match. She ended up in the hospital once last season, and though I joked with her that she was only permitted one hospitalization per season, she’s first on my list of “players most likely to be involved in a major collision.” Strom earned a roster spot mid-season and filled in well for King when needed. She’s not flashy, but she regularly ran past defenders down the sideline during Friday’s clash with UConn.
Regardless of who is starting, the defense will be the biggest question mark for this team until they settle in and get some results. With Oyster and Chapman on international duty, and Westphal and Frisbie held out of the game on Friday, there were several different personnel groups and positional shapes on display. I suspect Friday’s lineup will look nothing like the one Beard selects for the season opener next weekend.
Angela Salem will be the only familiar face returning to the Boston midfield from 2016. I expect her to return to her holding role in the middle, distributing to the more attack-minded players. One of those is New Zealand’s Rosie White, who I think will have a monster year in Boston. Though just 23, she’s already earned 84 senior caps for her country, and all that experience has helped her look like a world class pro. She’s been very impressive in training, with slick feet and an intuitive sense for the position and movement of all the players around her.
That bodes well for rookies Rose Lavelle and Morgan Andrews, who may come in and start immediately. Lavelle, of course, is the current “it girl” for the United States Women’s National Team and was selected as an allocated federation player for 2017. She’s got undeniable skill and will be a joy to watch over the season. Andrews is coming off a national championship at USC and always is looking to unleash a strike. She’s from New England and has an infectious positive energy that I expect will make her a fan favorite very quickly.
However, the two rookies may need to take turns. I’d anticipate Matt Beard deploying his former Liverpool Ladies midfielder (and 2012 WPSL Elite Boston Breaker) Amanda DaCosta to combine with Salem in pulling the strings for the attack. During Friday’s UConn match, the two worked very well together, keeping balls away from the defense and supplying well-placed passes forward. Forward is where Beard’s team will be headed at all times, because it’s a very attack-minded roster.
Trust me, this team is going to attack. There were times during the match when only one Breakers field player wasn’t in the attacking half. That may work against UConn, but will be a risky bet against a team with speedy strikers like the Thorns or Courage.
Every forward from the beginning of 2016 is gone, and only late-season arrival Natasha Dowie is back with the team. She’s the only player who stood out on attack last year, showing her teammates how to hit the net just minutes into her first Breakers match. She collected three goals in seven games overall, then continued her form in Australia, netting nine goals in 12 appearances for the Melbourne Victory in the W-League. Dowie is a real deal central striker and should be much more dangerous now that she’ll have help. Some of that help will eventually come from Norwegian winger Emilie Haavi, but she’s recovering from surgical repair of a broken jaw suffered a week ago Friday in training.
Another player returning to Boston after a long period away is Tiffany Weimer, who last donned the blue Breakers kit during the 2010 WPS season. Last year in Sweden’s Damallsvenskan, she collected five goals in ten matches for Kvarnsveden. On Friday night, she had several chances and converted two of them, including one header that arrived via Natasha Dowie’s headed cross. Her positioning is exceptional, as she’s seen everything soccer has to offer during her long career. If she’s lost any speed, her movement off the ball makes up for it, and she looked every bit as capable and quick as any of the much younger UConn women on Friday.
Canadian forward Adriana Leon has been on fire during preseason, and may get an early nod up top. If Beard runs a three forward attacking line, she’d be a great option opposite Haavi, who normally attacks from the wide areas. Rookie first-rounders Midge Purce and Ifeoma Onumonu may also benefit from Haavi’s injury to get some early playing time. Both have looked very eager to shoot in camp. Purce saw extensive action against UConn, pouncing on a loose ball and demonstrating her elite pace with a flashing dart up the middle of the pitch to earn a one-on-one with the UConn keeper. The UConn player marking her was sprinting home, but Purce pulled five strides clear of her between the midline and the top of the box. Her mid-stride, upper-corner shot was blocked away with the save of the night. Prior to that, Purce been a tad disconnected, but after the chance, she looked much more comfortable and involved.
Haley Dowd was picked late in the draft by Boston, but I think she’s likely to be the one player in camp to not to win the numbers game. It’s a shame because she brought some good, composed play and showed encouraging signs of her talent in limited action toward the end of the game on Friday night. Hopefully, she’ll be able to stick with the reserve squad and work into the pro team if someone gets injured later in the season.
It can’t get much worse than last year for Boston, but on paper, this team has the pieces to be dramatically improved. They’ve looked much better this preseason than at points last summer, and have all the pieces to challenge for a playoff berth. They’ll need some help, but I think it’s well within the realm of possibility that they force Lifetime to broadcast a postseason match in Boston after being snubbed (along with the Washington Spirit and FC Kansas City) for a home Game of the Week in 2017. Wouldn’t that be a great story?
2017 Boston Breakers Roster
GOALKEEPERS (3): Sammy Jo Prudhomme (GKR), Abby Smith, Libby Stout
DEFENDERS (7): Allysha Chapman (FED-CAN), Brooke Elby, Amanda Frisbie, Julie King, Megan Oyster, Kylie Strom, Christen Westphal
MIDFIELDERS (6): Rose Lavelle (FED-USA), Morgan Andrews, Amanda Da Costa, Angela Salem, Tiffany Weimer, Rosie White (INTL-NZL)
FORWARDS (5): Natasha Dowie (INTL-ENG), Emilie Haavi (INTL-NOR), Adriana Leon (INTL-CAN), Ifeoma Onumonu, Margaret Purce