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The All for XI 2019 NWSL season preview

Trophies to defend and losing streaks to forget.

Welcome to another season of the National Women’s Soccer League! Whether you’re new to the league or a long-time fan who’s been getting more and more antsy the longer offseason stretches, this is a guide for you to prepare for opening weekend. Below you’ll find the storylines we think will guide each team this season, some of the matchups that will play into those storylines, and, with NT players out for months due to the World Cup, which non-NT players you should watch. Without further ado, here’s your quick guide to the 2019 NWSL season.

Chicago Red Stars

2018 table finish and record: 4th, 9-5-10

Storylines this season

Chicago had a rough start to their 2018 season, winning just two games in their first ten. The arrival of Sam Kerr, plus the return of key players from the injured list, gave the Red Stars enough oomph to power through the second half of the season and qualify for the playoffs. But for the fourth season in a row, Chicago were bounced out of the playoffs in the semifinal round, the penultimate victims in North Carolina’s historic march to victory. With most of the squad’s heavy hitters expected to miss much of the season due to the World Cup, there’s a lot of uncertainty around the Red Stars this season. Their fortunes in 2019 will live or die by how well their second-stringers and fringe players step up and take advantage of their opportunities for more minutes. Chicago could very well storm the top of the table and give a similarly weakened North Carolina a run for their money. They could also end up missing the playoffs for the first time in years.

Important games

Away vs North Carolina, Apr. 13

The Red Stars will open their 2019 season with a rematch of last year’s semifinal. With at least some of their top players still in town, and no doubt nursing a grudge from last fall, Chicago will have an opportunity to make an early statement and put the rest of the league on notice.

Home vs Utah Royals, Aug. 3

If the Red Stars do fall behind early in the season, this game against budding rivals Utah will likely be the start of their make-or-break run. With their stars returning from the World Cup, Chicago will have an opportunity to either solidify their hold on a playoff spot or climb their way back into the conversation.

Players to watch

Yuki Nagasato

Nagasato may no longer be with the Nadeshiko, but she’s still got all the experience and savvy of an international-caliber player, which will certainly come in handy with team leaders like Sam Kerr gone this summer. She’s previously done her best work when she had other talented players around her, so seeing her in a leadership role this summer will be an interesting challenge.

Danny Colaprico

Colaprico had a stand-out year in 2018, enough to pull her into the USWNT midfield conversation. It’s unclear whether she’ll end up going to France— and if she misses out, she’s likely to settle into her role as a key part of the Red Stars’ mid-season push with a point to prove. And if she does go to the World Cup, she’ll come back with a wealth of experience that will serve her well as she takes up more of a leadership role in the squad.

Houston Dash

2018 table finish and record: 6th, 9-10-5

Storylines this season

Last season, the Dash were a mid-table team, but one with some frustrating potential. At just five points out of the top four on the table, a few more wins could have pushed them into the playoffs, but some key losses, like a 2-1 defeat at home by the Utah Royals and a 2-0 loss late in the season away at Seattle scuttled their hopes. This was also a team that managed to hang 1-1 with the Courage midseason, then get whomped by the Courage 5-0 in their last game. So they’ll be wanting to show they can push out of the midtable and beat those top table teams, including Portland and Chicago, both of whom they were able to tie early on, only to later lose to them.

Games to watch

Home vs Orlando Pride, May 5

Houston may struggle against top teams this season - let’s be real, everyone is going to struggle against North Carolina - so that makes it all the more vital that they establish dominance over their fellow mid-tablers.

Away vs Portland Thorns, July 24

Portland beat Houston 3-1 twice in a row last season. But to be the best, you’ve gotta beat the best, and winning away in Portland’s own house would be a huge signal that the Dash are not messing around this season.

Players to watch

Kristie Mewis

Part of the Dash’s misfortunes last season came when Mewis tore her ACL late in May. Until then it was looking like a good season for her, with Mewis gamely hanging in there as former Dash coach Vera Pauw moved her around the field in various positions. Mewis is all rehabbed up and probably looking forward to acting as a key piece in Houston’s midfield.

Sofia Huerta

It’s a tough fact that Huerta’s chances of leaving the Dash to join the US women’s national team for the World Cup are very close to zero. But that’s excellent news for the Dash, who are getting Huerta fresh off a fantastic season in Australia’s W-League, where she dominated on the flank and helped Sydney FC to a championship. Also, goals like this happened.

North Carolina Courage

2018 table finish and record: 1st, 17-1-6

Storylines this season

How long can a dominant team stay dominant? Can North Carolina still crush everything in their path without their core national team players? Let’s count: Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis, McCall Zerboni, Debinha, Crystal Dunn, and possibly Jess McDonald and Abby Erceg will all be gone for the World Cup. The loss of Mewis and Zerboni alone leaves a gaping hole in the Courage midfield, while Erceg and Dahlkemper put another giant hole in his central defense. But Paul Riley has proven excellent at recruiting players for his style of soccer and getting more depth out of his bench than other teams. They may not be the high-flying, high scoring team of 2018, but they could still prove a lot of very tiresome trouble for the rest of the league.

Important games

Home vs Orlando Pride, April 17

There are no Portland games here because, with apologies to Portland, they may consider this more of a rivalry than NC, given how handily NC won the 2018 championship. For NC, as current champions they’re the ones with everything to lose. Can they remain consistent again over a whole season? Answering that means winning while they’re tired against midtable teams with everything to prove, and they’re getting Orlando four days after Chicago at the very start of the season.

Players to watch

Heather O’Reilly

O’Reilly is a proven quantity who could be a big leader for the Courage while their core players are away. She’s seen seasons good and bad come and go, and she’s super useful as a right midfielder with an engine that won’t quit, which might make her some of the backbone of the support that players like Lynn Williams will need to put away goals.

Orlando Pride

2018 table finish and record: 7th, 8-10-6

Storylines this season

Orlando is another team that’s going to be hit hard by international absences. Marta and Alex Morgan are at the top of that list, but the team will also be losing Ashlyn Harris, Alanna Kennedy, Emily van Egmond and likely Shelina Zadorsky. It may also lose Ali Krieger (@ Jill Ellis???), which will complicate efforts to finish better than 7th. But that 7th place finish is a bit of an illusion as last season’s midtable was a crowded affair, and Orlando, Houston, and Utah all saw playoff chances slip through their fingers. New head coach Marc Skinner may see this as an opportunity to start with an entirely clean slate, free of any preconceptions left over from 2018.

Important games

Home vs Houston Dash, August 10

The Pride faded over the course of last season, dropping some critical points to them in a 3-1 loss last July. In 2019, this later-season clash with Houston will probably come at a time when the playoff race has clarified somewhat and they’ll need every point they can get.

Away vs Sky Blue FC, September 29

Sky Blue lost every single game in 2018, until their final game of the season, when they finally, finally got a win against Orlando on their home field in New Jersey. Did it sting to be the only team to lose to Sky Blue last season? Maybe. But for certain, Orlando won’t want it to happen again.

Players to watch

Chioma Ubogagu

There’s an outside chance that Ubogagu might make England’s World Cup roster, but odds are she’ll be with Orlando this summer. With Alex Morgan out and Sydney Leroux pregnant, Ubogagu needs to be able to step up and become the striker that Orlando needs.

Portland Thorns

2018 table finish and record: 2nd, 12-6-6

Storylines this season

Everyone likes to talk about Portland and Seattle’s long-established enmity, but the real seething rivalry in NWSL is Portland and North Carolina. Thorns fans may see the clash as style vs brute strength, but regardless of the teams’ differing playstyles, it’s impossible to deny that NC dominated. The Courage beat the Thorns in all three of their regular season games and then took them out 3-0 in the final. That’s not something you easily forget, or forgive.

Important games

Home vs NC Courage, August 11
Home vs NC Courage, September 11

The Courage looked pretty comfortable handling the Thorns in last year’s championship game; this year, Portland will be out for vengeance, particularly at home.

Players to watch

Emily Menges

Menges is a stalwart defender for the Thorns, and with Emily Sonnett likely gone, she’ll be carrying a bit more of the defensive leadership load. All signs point towards Menges being more than up to the challenge.

Midge Purce

Purce is a player with a lot of potential who hasn’t quite seen that potential come to fruition yet. Mark Parsons gave her decent playing time in 2018, but in 2019 she may get the time she needs to either earn a regular starting spot or demonstrate why Parsons prefers her off the bench.

Reign FC

2018 table finish and record: 3rd, 11-5-8

Storylines this season

The Reign improved by seven points from 2017 to 2018, making it back to the playoffs. But at the end of the season, Vlatko Andonovski’s squad couldn’t get past their local rivals, the Portland Thorns. The two teams faced off in back-to-back games in September, first in the regular season, then in the playoffs. In both games, the Reign scored first. And in both games, the Thorns came back to win.

Thorns fans will be hoping their team can get one over on their local rivals after that bitter end to last season, and they’ll be counting on a pair of international stars who missed the World Cup to do a lot of the heavy lifting.

Important games

Away vs. Chicago Red Stars, April 27

The Reign will get a chance to figure out where they stand in the league’s pecking order pretty early on, with a road test in Chicago three games into the season. Both teams should have all of their players available for this game, which could be a playoff series preview. Allie Long and new signing Elise Kellond-Knight will have the tough task of cutting off supply to golden boot winner Sam Kerr.

Home vs. Portland Thorns, August 7

Some World Cup stars are likely to be missing from the first match between the Cascadia rivals, but everyone should be back for their second match in Tacoma. Expect this game to feature one of the best crowds and some of the most intense play you see all season.

Players to watch

Theresa Nielsen

Nielsen missed a bit of time in her debut season due to injuries and international call-ups, but the Dane is expected to play a lot more in 2019. Denmark missed out on the World Cup, and she’ll arguably be the best player left in the league while all the stars are away in France. She’s the most complete right back in the league, equally capable of shutting down an attack on her own or assisting with a pinpoint cross.

Jessica Fishlock

Fishlock will miss the beginning of the season while she finishes up a UEFA Champions League campaign with Olympique Lyonnais, but she’ll be back in time for the World Cup break and the matchups against the Thorns. Fishlock is a dynamic attack-minded midfielder, and the Reign are often as good (or bad) as she is on the day.

Sky Blue FC

2018 table finish and record: 9th, 1-17-6

Storylines this season

Redemption is too harsh a word for the 2019 version of Sky Blue. The players themselves have nothing to redeem themselves for; despite a dead last finish and single-digit points on the table, no one could really accuse Sky Blue of not trying their absolute hardest in 2018. Instead, 2019 is possibly about new beginnings and not being defined by the past. This is the season to grab the reins; every other team is getting a real mean stubbed toe with internationals gone, while Sky Blue will only lose one player in Carli Lloyd. With solid names like Nahomi Kawasumi and Jen Hoy imported into the roster and a couple of rookie signings, this could be the chance for a revitalized roster to seize a true underdog narrative.

Important games

Just about all of them

Look. Maybe it’s a cop out to say that every Sky Blue result matters, but honestly after last year, they kind of do. Should you expect a highly competitive game against the Courage or the Red Stars? Maybe! In 2018, Sky Blue was able to hold both of those teams to relatively narrow results earlier in the season. The key this season, win or lose, will be seeing if the team improves over time, or slowly collapses until they slouch towards an inevitable finish.

Players to watch

Savannah McCaskill

McCaskill is another player who went to Australia, got her feet back under her, and should return to NWSL energized for a new season. She’s got goalscoring chops and has stated publicly she wants to work her way into the USWNT; a statement season at Sky Blue FC would help with that.

Imani Dorsey

Sports fans love to play the what-if game, and it’s hard not to ask what if 2018 NWSL Rookie of the Year Imani Dorsey had played for a team with better support underneath its forwards. Dorsey won RotY in a season where she had just four goals, and yet her potential (and possibly a slightly limited rookie pool) was such that everyone could see she had way more left to give.

Utah Royals

2018 table finish and record: 5th, 9-7-8

Storylines this season

Utah is coming out of a foundation-laying first season, where coach Laura Harvey and GM Craig Waibel figured out what kind of squad they wanted to build. They started with the former core of FC Kansas City, but have made significant changes. Most notably, superstars Christen Press and Vero Boquete weren’t on the roster to start last season, and now make up one of the most formidable attacking tandems in NWSL.

If Utah is going to make a leap forward and contend for the playoffs, they’ll need those two to find chemistry quickly. Utah is solid in goal, defense and defensive midfield, but it remains to be seen if they know how to create goals. They certainly have the talent up front now, they just have to start doing it.

Important games

Home vs. Washington Spirit, April 20

Listing the opening game as an important one is a bit obvious, but the Royals’ opener, in particular, will be telling. Washington is coming off a dreadful campaign and has a new head coach with no experience in pro women’s soccer, who is trying to completely overhaul the Spirit tactically. If Utah can’t beat the Spirit at home, they might be in for a long year.

Away vs. Portland Thorns, June 21

The Royals are expected to be pretty good with their first choice lineup available, but their depth remains questionable. They’ve got a huge away test while World Cup players are gone, and June’s match against Portland should tell us a lot about how good Utah’s backups are.

Players to watch

Vero Boquete

It’s been a fairly quiet NWSL offseason, with many teams and players saving their big moves for this summer. The biggest capture anyone made was the Royals’ signing of Boquete, a creative Spanish attacking midfielder who arrives in Utah from Beijing. She last played in NWSL for Portland in 2014, before departing for Europe. Boquete is just as likely to assist as she is to score, and should strike up an entertaining partnership with the faster and more direct Press.

Abby Smith

Following the World Cup, the USWNT’s starting goalkeeper spot could go up for grabs. One of the players in contention to wear the No. 1 shirt in the future is Smith, who’s 25 and entering her third season as a starting goalkeeper. She makes more errors than the other young keepers in contention for a national team place, but she makes more spectacular saves and aerial claims than anyone else in the pool. If she can clean up her mistakes, you’ll get to see her in a national team shirt over the next four years.

Washington Spirit

2018 table finish and record: 8th, 2-17-5

Storylines this season

Sky Blue FC captured headlines last season for their off-the-field issues and last-place finish, but the most miserable team to watch was the Spirit, who set the record for consecutive minutes without a goal. They regularly looked incapable of passing the ball forward and rightfully fired coach Jim Gabarra. New coach Richie Burke has no experience in women’s pro soccer and a history of homophobic abuse. Fans are not terribly happy or optimistic at the moment.

Burke has a lot of work to do in order to prove his credentials as a manager, both tactically and personally. He seems to understand this, as he’s offered nothing but glowing praise for his players so far, but that’s hardly proof he’s the right man for the very difficult job in front of him.

Important games

All of them

Picking out individual important games for a team in the Spirit’s situation seems a bit silly. This is a team that has to worry more about progressing over the course of the entire season, rather than picking up points and passing individual tests.

Players to watch

Andi Sullivan

Following a disappointing rookie campaign, Sullivan looks set to remake herself as a leader and deep-lying playmaker. She was regularly used in a box-to-box role and struggled with the pace of the game in 2018, but in 2019, she’s been handed the captain’s armband and a ton of responsibility in a No. 6 role. All of the Spirit’s attacks will start with her, and she’ll be responsible for directing traffic around her. It’s probably too late for Sullivan to play a starting role at this World Cup, but a good season for the Spirit could see her finally ascend to the position she’s been expected to win since she was a freshman in college.

Ashley Hatch

Hatch is a speedy poacher, and she didn’t exactly fit in Gabarra’s system. On a slow team that refused to play into space, Hatch often looked like a passenger. But she’s one of the best strikers in NWSL at capitalizing on a wide-open game, and the Spirit are going to be in quite a few of those this season. Even if the Spirit are a bad team, expect Hatch to rebound and score a lot of goals.

What are your hopes for NWSL this season? Which teams do you think will make the most progress - or fall the furthest? Let us know in the comments!