NWSL preview: Players to watch
One doesn't have to look far to compile a "top players list" from the National Women's Soccer League. You've got U.S. national team mainstays like Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan. And no list would be complete without Canada's Christine Sinclair. Some mild debate might rage over whether a Tobin Heath should be included at the expense of a Carli Lloyd, but there wouldn't be too much quibbling.
But one reason the NWSL came into existence was to help build the women's game for tomorrow, not just entertain for today. So with that in mind, here are five players to watch this season, players who look set to enhance their reputations and one day might become mainstays for their national team.
1. Keelin Winters, M, Seattle Reign FCOne of the last players cut from last summer's Olympic team, Winters has been on the cusp of sticking with the U.S. team for some time now after starring for the Boston Breakers in the now defunct WPS, but she couldn't manage to break through the logjam in the center of midfield.
With the start of a new World Cup cycle, Winters has a chance to state her case in a league that new U.S. national coach Tom Sermanni will no doubt be keeping an eye on. A tremendous ball-winner and physical presence, Winters has the ability to one day supplant Shannon Boxx in the center of the U.S. midfield. But first she'll need to show off her abilities with Seattle.
"When I had her with the Breakers, every coach would come up to me and say, 'I didn't realize she was that good,'" said former Boston manager and current ESPN television analyst Tony DiCicco, who also coached Winters with the U.S. U-20 national team. "She's a player to keep an eye on."
2. Allie Long, M, Portland Thorns FCPortland is loaded up top with the likes of Morgan and Sinclair, but someone will still need to get them the ball in positions where they can do damage. Given Long's ability to play in the center of midfield or out wide, she could be one of the prime conduits and record truckload of assists.
"Long has matured into a productive, efficient and versatile central midfielder who is capable of running any midfield," said Paul Riley via email, who coached Long when she was with the New York Fury. "She has corrected some flaws in her game and she has a genius soccer IQ. She's tactically exceptional and now has all the qualities to play with the national team."
3. Sinead Farrelly, M, FC Kansas CityFarrelly is poised to occupy a central attacking role flanked by U.S. international Lauren Cheney. Given such talented company, not to mention her own ability, Farrelly's notoriety could increase during the 2013 season.
"I feel she is one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the country," said Riley, who drafted Farrelly out of Virginia in 2011 while coaching the Philadelphia Independence in the WPS. "She can defend, attack, has a great range of passing and superb soccer mind. She also has an engine like no other. I'd be shocked if she doesn't get called up to the full national team."
4. McCall Zerboni, M, Western New York FlashWith Carli Lloyd set to miss the start of the season with a shoulder injury, much of the Flash's attacking responsibility is set to run through Zerboni, who in previous seasons has shown off her technical ability and creativity. Of course, Lloyd will return at some point, but such is Zerboni's versatility that she's likely to remain on the field.
"The one side of Zerboni's game that I know will take her to the next level is I want her to be more [clinical] in front of goal," said Western New York manager Aaran Lines. "If she does that, she'll be able to march on through, and hopefully get an opportunity."
5. Nikki Marshall, D, Portland Thorns FCMarshall is one of those players with the ability to play anywhere, but lately, she has spent time as a central defender. That was the position she played with the U-20s under DiCicco, and she'll likely fill the same spot for Portland. DiCicco raved about her "Rampone-like speed," but she also has enough skill on the ball to deliver pinpoint passes out of defense.
"I think if Marshall plays well, she absolutely needs to be brought into the national team, because what our defense lacks, and continues to lack, is just pace in the back," said DiCicco.