WE’RE BACK. NWSL returns on Saturday after an offseason that felt outrageously long to this writer. There are four games this weekend, with Utah Royals getting a bye, and there’s a good reason to watch all of them.
Washington Spirit vs. Sky Blue FC — There’s gonna be goals
Last season’s matchups between these two teams featured not only some of the lowest quality women’s professional soccer of all time, but also some of the most boring. The Spirit were not only bad, but dull — unlike their attack, the Spirit’s defense was fairly competent, and they played a slow style.
The jury’s still out on how much better these teams will be this season, but they certainly won’t be as boring. Sky Blue coach Denise Reddy looked committed to playing 4-4-2 in preseason, so they should be able to get numbers into the box. At the same time, there will be some space to play through their midfield.
New Spirit coach Richie Burke is much more intent on establishing an attractive style of play than he is on getting results early in the season, so expect the Spirit to try to score a lot of goals or get shredded trying.
I cannot tell you that this game will feature a high level of play. But I am confident that it won’t be boring like last year’s encounters. If nothing else, forwards Imani Dorsey and Ashley Hatch are going to have a lot more fun this season than they did last season.
North Carolina Courage vs. Chicago Red Stars — Welcome to the league, Tierna Davidson
No. 1 overall draft pick Davidson is expected to slot right into the Red Stars starting lineup, but she’s facing a stiff test in her professional debut. Davidson has struggled a bit with one-on-one defending in space during recent USWNT matches, and she’ll probably be asked to do quite a bit of that on Saturday.
North Carolina has a trio of attackers — Lynn Williams, Jess McDonald and Crystal Dunn — who are better than just about everyone Davidson has ever faced. The Courage are also a much more coordinated team than anyone Davidson has ever faced off against.
If Davidson has a really bad time in this game, you shouldn’t hold it against her. Plenty of experienced superstars have been roasted by the Courage’s forwards. But if she holds her own in a good defensive performance by the Red Stars, you can schedule a Tierna Davidson Hype Train.
Orlando Pride vs. Portland Thorns — Do we get the good Alex Morgan this year?
2018 was one of Alex Morgan’s best years with the national team, and she’s off to a fantastic start in 2019 too. But at club level, Morgan had a miserable time for Orlando Pride last season. She scored five goals as the team finished in seventh place, but her shooting numbers are more concerning than the goal tally. She wasn’t unlucky or finishing poorly, she was just never getting chances in the first place.
As the Pride’s center forward, with Marta playmaking behind her, Morgan got just 38 shots. With Morgan’s minutes, she ended up with about 2 shots per 90 minutes. Sam Kerr, the league’s golden boot winner, got 4.5 shots per 90 by comparison.
The Pride haven’t made significant roster changes, so they’re clearly banking on that problem being primarily down to coaching. Marc Skinner replaces Tom Sermanni, and his biggest tactical task will be engineering a way to increase the number of shooting opportunities that Morgan gets.
Houston Dash vs. Reign FC — Tru Sofia Huerta hours who up
Sofia Huerta really felt like she got jerked around last season. She asked for a trade from the Chicago Red Stars to the Houston Dash in order to get playing time at right back, which probably would have helped her win a spot on the United States women’s national team. But the Dash correctly identified that Huerta is one of the best attacking midfielders in the world and a huge waste at right back, and she proceeded to play her ass off in that position.
For reasons that are impossible to discern, Jill Ellis does not rate Huerta as an attacking mid, so she probably won’t go to the World Cup. But Huerta finished last season with eight goals and six assists. They came from 65 shots and 40 key passes, suggesting that her breakout year was no fluke — she was just consistently productive.
Huerta followed that up with four goals and three assists in 14 games during the Australian W-League campaign, including this performance in the grand final.
The Dash acquired experienced central midfielders Sophie Schmidt and Christine Nairn this offseason, while Kristie Mewis has recovered well from an ACL tear, so the talent behind Huerta should enable her to be even more successful this season.
In 2015, Crystal Dunn showed why she should have made the World Cup squad with an NWSL MVP campaign. If you’re looking for a candidate to pull off something similar this season, Huerta might be the best one.