Top NWSL storylines to watch as season revolves around Women's World Cup
Saturday marks the start of the National Women's Soccer League's seventh season. With no teams added through expansion, lost to contraction or relocated since last fall, it's also the first time the league opens a season with the same lineup as it finished the previous season.
Let's look at some of the stories likely to shape the season.
The World Cup defines the summer
The idea that the show must go on isn't exactly a riveting marketing slogan, but it's the reality for a soccer league that shares a significant part of the summer schedule with the World Cup.
Playing understudy isn't all bad. Four years ago, when the U.S. won the Women's World Cup while playing in front of record TV audiences at home, the NWSL reaped the benefits in the form of then-record attendance figures in its third season. The World Cup, specifically a successful or at least compelling run from the American entry, is still the best advertising out there for a league that is home to so many of the players who will be on the fields in France. That exposure is all the more valuable given that the NWSL begins the season without a cable or network broadcast partner after breaking off its partnership with A+E Networks in February.
As was the case four years ago, the NWSL will briefly put its season on hold when what is likely to be about a fifth of its workforce goes to the World Cup. (Just short of 50 NWSL players took part in the 2015 World Cup.) The break encompasses only one open weekend in June, while players who make World Cup runs will miss more than a month. That includes not just Americans and Canadians, but a large Australian contingent led by Chicago's Sam Kerr, England's Rachel Daly (Houston), Jodie Taylor (Seattle) and Chioma Ubogagu (Orlando), Brazil's Andressinha (Portland), Debinha (North Carolina) and Marta (Orlando) and others.
To put it another way, the entire all-NWSL "Best XI" of a season ago will likely be in France this summer. The NWSL's offseason decision to expand rosters will help stability, with teams now able to carry up to 22 players on the active roster and four more who don't count against the salary cap on a supplemental roster.
North Carolina looks to cement dynasty
The North Carolina Courage bolstered their credentials as one of the most dominant franchises in American sports a season ago. After winning the NWSL Shield as regular-season champions in 2017 but losing in the final of those playoffs, the Courage last year became the first team in the league's first six seasons to sweep both the regular-season and postseason titles.
The Courage won the regular-season title by 15 points, then beat Portland 3-0 on the latter team's field in the championship game. The Courage didn't even get a home game in the first round of playoffs, due to concerns about Hurricane Florence.
For good measure, the Courage made it three trophies in 2018 by winning the first women's edition of the International Champions Cup, beating Champions League winner Lyon in the final. (They host Atletico Madrid, Lyon and Manchester City in the second edition Aug. 15-18 of this year.)
North Carolina will be without U.S. regulars Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn and Samantha Mewis for an extended period, as well as veteran Heather O'Reilly because of World Cup broadcast duties. It may also lose Jessica McDonald and McCall Zerboni to the American cause. Debinha, New Zealand's Abby Erceg and Canada's Stephanie Labbe will also be called away. That's a hefty World Cup toll for a team that only tinkered around the edges of the roster in the offseason.
"We prepped for 18 months for this," Courage coach Paul Riley said. "Looking at different lineups and players that can come in and making sure that our players are ready mentally and physically -- especially physically because it's a whole different world playing in the game than it is practicing. We think we've done as much as we can at this point. I always tell people you can be a mapmaker, and you can prepare all you want, but sometimes it's better just to be a traveler. We're going to travel with this team."
The season could belong to Lynn Williams
When Dunn, then with Washington, missed out on the 2015 World Cup roster, she seized the opportunity for extended summer reps, won NWSL MVP honors and made herself an automatic selection for the national team from that point forward. Williams already owns MVP hardware, capturing that award in 2016, but this season is a chance for the 25-year-old to show that slipping out of the U.S. mix over the past year was just a momentary blip on a still ascendant career arc.
The mental side, she's totally keyed into what we're doing. And physically, I've never seen her look like this, I've never seen her look so dominant, so quick, so electric.Courage coach Paul Riley on Lynn Williams
Williams scored 34 goals over the past three NWSL seasons but struggled at times in admittedly limited international auditions to show the necessary efficiency in finishing.
"The mental side, she's totally keyed into what we're doing," Riley said. "And physically, I've never seen her look like this, I've never seen her look so dominant, so quick, so electric. We've spent a lot of time in preseason with her in front of net, talking about finishing, working on her finishing and cleaning it up technically and tactically."
Williams isn't the only player who could propel herself to even bigger and better things.
Savannah McCaskill, Sky Blue: The No. 2 overall selection in the 2018 draft, McCaskill already has her foot in the door with six career caps for the U.S. and could follow the Dunn model after a successful stint playing for Sydney FC in Australia during the NWSL offseason.
Andi Sullivan, Washington Spirit: Last year's No. 1 overall pick may yet earn a ticket to France. Sullivan was part of the most recent U.S. roster for its California training camp but didn't play in games against Australia and Belgium. If she misses the World Cup roster, the extra time on the field with the Spirit could help a player whose game is all about poise, control and rhythm play her way back into peak form ahead of the Olympics in 2020.
Portland should (eventually) lead challengers
Portland won't play a home game until June because of renovations underway at Providence Park. It won't see much of reigning MVP Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heath, Christine Sinclair or a cast of other stars until even later in the summer. So the league's perennial contender isn't going to have an easy go of maintaining that status this season. It's perhaps not surprising that the last World Cup year was the only season in which Portland missed the NWSL playoffs.
That said, the Thorns just need to make the top four to bring all of their assets to bear on the postseason, and betting against them is a risky move considering they still have international talent that will be around all summer, Switzerland's Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic and the returns of Iceland's Dagny Brynjarsdottir, and veterans like Meghan Klingenberg and Emily Menges.
Chicago: The Red Stars will be hit as hard as any team by World Cup departures, including Kerr, Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher, and overall No. 1 pick Tierna Davidson, but the club that has earned a reputation for stockpiling young talent also has as many near-internationals at its disposal as any team. Mexico's World Cup qualification failure could be Chicago's boon, with newly-acquired Katie Johnson available to soften some of the blow of Kerr's absence.
Reign FC: They are no longer in Seattle, having shifted operations a few miles south to Tacoma, but the Reign don't look much different from the talented, well-coached outfit they've always been, first under Laura Harvey and now Vlatko Andonovski in his second season in charge. And about the time most teams lose stars to the World Cup, the Reign should get loanee Jess Fishlock back from Lyon's campaign in the Champions League.
New York and Los Angeles markets in spotlight
Nothing that happens in the nation's two biggest markets is likely to effect the NWSL's on-field narrative in 2019. But each will have something to say about where the league goes from here.
New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC remains the closest thing the league has to a Big Apple entry. It also begins the season trying to prove it isn't also the league's hottest mess. Beyond finishing last and allowing almost as many goals as North Carolina scored in 2018, Sky Blue ended up in the headlines because of reports that made it look like a strictly minor league operation, from inadequate player housing to substandard training facilities. The club whose ownership group includes New Jersey governor Phil Murphy then saw its valued first-round picks, Hailie Mace and Julia Ashley, elect to sign overseas rather than play in New Jersey.
News this week that president and general manager Tony Novo is leaving represents change, but a lot of eyes will be on the team this season to see if there is any actual progress.
Meanwhile, if Sky Blue represents a distillation of many of the league's growing pains, the Los Angeles market represents much of the optimism for a league that has endured significantly longer than its two predecessors, the WUSA and WPS. There still isn't a team in California, despite rumors of a partnership between LAFC and Barcelona. But the recent U.S. game at LAFC's Banc of California Stadium wasn't just a chance to honor the 1999 World Cup champions, but also show off a soccer environment that would look good in the NWSL.
The announcement of a franchise affiliated with LAFC would tip the league balance toward a majority of clubs that are affiliated with MLS or, in the case of North Carolina, USL men's teams.
"We had early discussions last year about maybe partnering with a group, but that didn't go in the direction that we thought," said Mia Hamm, part of LAFC's extensive ownership group. "Because we were building such a brand here, and that's important for us to do. So when we make that commitment we want to make sure we can go all in and do it right, just like we've done with the men's team."