Five observations as the NWSL kicks off its fifth season
The National Women's Soccer League's fifth season kicks off this weekend, each of 10 teams playing 24 games between now and the end of September to determine four playoff participants.
The new campaign features a new-but-familiar franchise, a new-but-familiar superstar and unfamiliar labor peace between U.S. Soccer, which helps subsidize the league, and the national team players.
What does all of this mean for the games ahead? Glad you asked.
What are the North Carolina Courage?
By now, most people know that the league's newest name is also its defending champion; the franchise that won a title as the Western New York Flash was sold soon thereafter and relocated to the Raleigh-Durham area. And while the symbolism of a champion shutting its doors isn't great, given the tenuous history of just about every women's professional league in any team sport in this country, the move generated strikingly positive reviews. In facility, market and ownership, the league appeared to add an asset with the Courage.
Which offers the freedom to think about the Courage in on-field terms. So just what is this team?
Are the Courage an emerging power that won't be easily displaced? Reigning league MVP Lynn Williams is just 23 years old and a contender for the next World Cup roster. Only a year older, Samantha Mewis has been one of the most consistent performers for the U.S. women in 2017, her development an advertisement for a professional league. Defender Abby Dahlkemper, goalkeeper Sabrina D'Angelo and first-round pick Ashley Hatch add to the under-25 core. And veteran coach Paul Riley, with more time and resources at his disposal, bolstered the ranks with Brazilian midfielders Debinha and Rosana and Japanese defender Yuri Kawamura.
Yet the Flash needed a win against Boston in the final round of the regular season to ensure a place in the playoffs, with a third of their wins against the league's worst team. They allowed more goals than any of the other top-six teams. They gave away a two-goal lead in a semifinal at top-seed Portland and survived. They won the title in a penalty shootout against Washington.
North Carolina should be better than Western New York. But it will also need to be.
Will the league suffer through high-profile absences?
As the NWSL season begins, Carli Lloyd is preparing for Manchester City's FA Cup semifinal against Liverpool. Two legs of a Champions League semifinal against Alex Morgan and French side Lyon await after that, the timing of which means postponing a league game against Crystal Dunn and Chelsea. If Dunn has some time on her hands, she could always catch up with Heather O'Reilly during a break at Arsenal.
For the third time in its five seasons -- World Cup and Olympic years the earlier culprits -- the NWSL will be without some of the biggest American names for a significant part of its schedule. This time it's less clear exactly what that means for the league.
At least Lloyd and Morgan will be back in the NWSL by early June. Dunn and O'Reilly are more nebulous. Dunn, in particular, was effusive in recent praise of the entire experience in England, where she has settled in as the main striker for Chelsea after being moved out of that position a season ago in Washington on the heels of a breakout MVP year in 2015. She also said at the time she signed with Chelsea this spring that she wouldn't return to the NWSL in 2017.
While the new collective bargaining agreement between U.S. Soccer and the women's national team includes a commitment to play in NWSL, that commitment is said not to be exclusive (the impact of the national team's CBA on the league is itself one of the season's questions, albeit one likely to be answered only slowly). So we wait to see if this is, as still appears most likely, just a moment in which a few players stretch their legs or if the NWSL will find itself competing for the full-time attention of its core.
Will the league benefit from a high-profile arrival?
Women's soccer remains both an import and export business in this country, with players from roughly a dozen countries beyond Canada, Mexico and the United States on opening day NWSL rosters even as the aforementioned high-profile Americans move abroad.
From Nadine Angerer and Kim Little to Amandine Henry, the NWSL has never held back from bringing in international players with established résumés. But Marta will always be a case unto herself, the Brazilian star now back in the United States as the Orlando Pride's newest addition.
Marta has at times been a talent that women's soccer cannot afford. Through little fault of her own, her inclusion in women's professional soccer came to symbolize that league's financial missteps, two franchises that paid her wages and eventually the entire league folding -- even as those teams won with her on the field. Things didn't always go better elsewhere, Swedish club Tyreso collapsing financially around Marta (and other big names) in 2014 even as it played for a Champions League title.
The clubs willing to pay fair market value for what her sublime talent merits have an unfortunate history of also being the clubs too fiscally imprudent to survive.
The Pride, run by the same Brazilian CEO as Orlando City of MLS, will try to prove otherwise. If successful, not just on the field but at the ticket window and the marketing table, it will be the strongest challenge yet to Portland's place as the league's model franchise.
From a marketing standpoint, Marta's presence in Orlando makes sense in ways it might not elsewhere. Census data indicates Orlando has a sizable population of Portuguese speakers, with not-too-distant South Florida also home to some of the largest Brazilian-American communities in the country. Paired with Morgan upon her return, Orlando will have arguably the two most recognizable players in the women's game. And at 31, Marta remains if not the transcendent force of a few years ago still very much a game-, season- and even franchise-altering talent.
Too much too soon or a bold masterstroke? That is always the question.
Will Portland finally give the league a double winner?
Speaking of the NWSL's flagship franchise, the league's first four seasons passed without any team winning both the regular season and playoffs. And wouldn't the Thorns, who open this season at home against Orlando on national television, love to change that.
Playing in front of by far the largest crowds in the league, they earned their first NWSL Shield a season ago with the best record in the regular season. The trade that sent Morgan to Orlando before the season helped fill out a roster that wasn't exactly starving for talent to begin with. A once-leaky defense allowed the fewest goals in the league. And all while no team made more airport runs, players coming and going on international duty around the globe.
It all went swimmingly, right up until that wild semifinal against Western New York.
There will be fewer disruptions for second-year coach Mark Parsons and essentially the same roster this year. The injury that kept Tobin Heath out of recent U.S. games and will sideline her for this weekend's NWSL opener is a reminder that no amount of planning can account for all challenges. And certainly this summer's Euros will hit a team with Dagny Brynjarsdottir, Henry and Nadia Nadim harder than the rest of the league. But in both the amount of talent on hand and the resources made available in support of that talent, Portland stands apart.
From start to finish, with all of those fans along for the whole ride.
Why might the stable inherit the earth?
They didn't relocate. They didn't make many splashy signings. They don't have the financial resources -- or the crowds -- of the teams affiliated with MLS brands. But these three franchises have already demonstrated an ability to succeed on their own terms and won't let anyone run away with any titles this season.
Chicago Red Stars: It isn't a case of now or never for the Red Stars, but there are term limits on how long a franchise can be on the rise. After back-to-back playoff appearances, it's time to find the summit. A full season of Christen Press, her first since joining the league, is a cornerstone for a team that struggled to score a season ago. The defense will be there, goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher playing behind a back line with three players who spent time with the United States a year ago.
FC Kansas City: The return of both Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez from maternity leave offers the promise of more goals this season for the league's only two-time champion. The Blues remained one of the best coached teams under Vlatko Andonovski, who should be buoyed by new ownership for the team, but only Boston scored fewer goals in 2016.
Seattle Reign: The class of the league in both 2014 and 2015, when they compiled 24 more points than any other team, Seattle missed the postseason altogether in 2016. Losing Little, Hope Solo, Keelin Winters and Kendall Fletcher would seem to signal continued regression, all the more after new signee Diana Matheson was lost to a knee injury. But full seasons from Megan Rapinoe and Nahomi Kawasumi, along with the addition of Christine Nairn and retention of Jess Fishlock, gives coach and general manager Laura Harvey something to work with. And as with Andonovski, Harvey has earned the benefit of the doubt.