By MIKE McCALL
It may not generate huge crowds or giant TV ratings, but the dawn of the National Women’s Soccer League season this weekend is a crucial one for the future of the U.S. women’s national team, as well as the sport of women’s soccer.
The eight-team NWSL is the latest attempt at an American women’s pro soccer league, following Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-11) and the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-03), but there’s a key difference this time.
U.S. Soccer is running the league, and along with the soccer federations from Canada and Mexico, they’ve allocated their national team players to NWSL teams and will subsidize their salaries, which helps teams enlist world-class talent at affordable prices. With an eye on sustainability, player salaries are being kept very low, ranging from $6,000 to $30,000.
That kind of commitment underscores what this league means to the national team programs of those three countries. After all, it’s hard to stay competitive internationally when your players can’t get regular minutes against top competition, and that’s exactly what the NWSL aims to provide.
The action kicks off Saturday night with the Portland Thorns at FC Kansas City, followed by three Sunday matchups: Seattle Reign at the Chicago Red Stars, the Western NY Flash at Sky Blue FC, and the Washington Spirit at the Boston Breakers.
It’s the beginning of a four-and-a-half month road for NWSL teams, which will play 22 games each, aiming for a top four spot to advance to the playoffs.
Here’s a look at each team heading into the season, organized by their opening matchup:
FC KANSAS CITY vs. PORTLAND THORNS FC (Sat., 7:35 p.m.)
FC KC: This team has quietly built a solid roster. Their U.S. allocations weren’t splashy, but they’re reliable: goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, defender Becky Sauerbrunn and forward Lauren Cheney, who will be a player to watch after stronger and stronger performances for the national team. What’s more, they picked up two young talents in the draft via midfielders Kristie Mewis — another national teamer — and Erika Tymrak. This team isn’t in the spotlight and doesn’t have huge stars, but it can certainly challenge for a playoff spot and title.
THORNS: Meet the Yankees of NWSL, the team that will go everywhere with a target on its back. Ever since the international player allocations were announced, the Thorns have been heavy title favorites. Their haul included U.S. star forward Alex Morgan, U.S. defender Rachel Buehler, playmaking U.S. midfielder Tobin Heath and Canadian captain Christine Sinclair. While Heath won’t arrive until her obligations are fulfilled with Paris Saint-Germain, that’s the foundation of a loaded roster, and there will be plenty of pressure to perform — not to mention the reported 7,000 season tickets that have already been sold.
CHICAGO RED STARS vs. SEATTLE REIGN FC (Sun., 5 p.m.)
RED STARS: It could be a rough year in the Windy City. Of their U.S. allocations, only midfielder Shannon Boxx will suit up, and while still solid, she’s 35. The other two won’t be around, as defender Amy LePeilbet suffered a knee injury and midfielder Keelin Winters was traded to Seattle. Mexican forward Maribel Dominguez will be leaned on for offense, as will forward Ella Masar, and No. 1 overall draft pick Zakiya Bywaters should provide some excitement. But on paper, the Red Stars have one of the toughest tasks ahead.
REIGN: Like its opening opponent, the Reign won’t reap the full rewards of its U.S. allocation. Goalkeeper Hope Solo is battling a wrist injury, forward Amy Rodriguez is pregnant and will miss the season, and midfielder Megan Rapinoe won’t join until the summer when she’s done steamrolling the rest of Europe with juggernaut Olympique Lyon. The midseason returns of Solo and Rapinoe would make this a dangerous roster, but for now, Seattle will rely on Mexican midfielder Teresa Noyola — a former MAC Hermann Trophy winner in college — and former Penn State star midfielder Christine Nairn.
SKY BLUE FC vs. WESTERN NY FLASH (Sun., 6 p.m.)
SKY BLUE: The U.S. trio of goalkeeper Jill Loyden, defender Christie Rampone and Kelley O’Hara (who will play forward), gives Sky Blue FC a strong backbone, although Loyden will be out a few weeks due to injury. But it might take huge efforts from O’Hara and the 37-year-old Rampone to keep them in the title hunt, although it’s probably best not to bet against Rampone, whose previous stint with Sky Blue FC led to a 2009 championship while she served as player-coach.
FLASH: The Flash are another club with a target on its back, for multiple reasons. First, they have won titles in three leagues over the past three years: the W-League, WPS and WPSL. Secondly, while former stars like Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair and Marta are gone, hometown hero and FIFA World Player of the Year Abby Wambach will suit up to lead the front line. Add in talented young goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd (who’s recovering from injury), Spanish forward Adriana (a former FC Barcelona player) and Mexican forward Veronica Perez, and there’s plenty of reason to think the Flash can go four-for-four.
BOSTON BREAKERS vs. WASHINGTON SPIRIT (Sun., 6:30 p.m.)
BREAKERS: Between U.S. forward Sydney Leroux, Australian forward Kyah Simon and U.S. midfielder Heather O’Reilly, there’s plenty to be excited about with the Breakers’ attack. The question is on defense. Heather Mitts retired, leaving Cat Whitehill tasked with pulling together the back line. What’s more, Boston only lists four healthy defenders on its roster, meaning lots of pressure on Leroux & Co. to pour in goals at the other end.
SPIRIT: The Spirit have the opposite problem. Washington was allocated top defensive players: goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris and right back Ali Krieger from the U.S., then defender Robin Gayle from Canada. Beyond that, they signed Canadian defender Candace Chapman, and they’ll have a trio of international midfielders in Lori Lindsey (U.S.), Diana Matheson (Canada) and Lupita Worbis (Mexico). The questions are up top, where Washington has a crop of talented youngsters in Stephanie Ochs, Tiffany McCarty, Caroline Miller and Colleen Williams. All four have solid track records at the college level, and Ochs is coming off an MVP performance with the U.S. Under-23 team at the Four Nations Tournament, but the lack of experience is a concern.
What do you think? Expect the Flash and Thorns to crush the competition? Do you see a dark horse emerging? Think the NWSL can do what its predecessors couldn’t by sticking around?