Five burning questions for NWSL season
While the United States' national team has claimed the headlines of late, the second season of the National Women's Soccer League gets underway this weekend. What are some of the questions to ponder for a league with its first defending champion, a new franchise and a new batch of rookies?
Will Portland defend its championship?
The stops and starts inherent in three attempts at a domestic women's professional league mean there haven't been a great many opportunities for teams to defend championships, but the fact remains that no team in WUSA or WPS won back-to-back titles. Portland Thorns FC are positioned to end that streak in the NWSL's second season.
As was the case a season ago, when Portland entered as a trendy championship pick but entered the playoffs as merely the No. 3 seed, there is a question as to how often the ideal lineup on paper will actually appear on the field. Alex Morgan remains sidelined by an ankle injury, and Tobin Heath's arrival will again be delayed by her commitments with Paris St. Germain. Throw in a new coach, with Paul Riley replacing Cindy Parlow Cone, and a high-profile change in goal, with German star Nadine Angerer replacing Karina LeBlanc, and there may again be a learning curve.
But even a wait should be worth it.
Angerer is a year removed from winning FIFA Player of the Year honors. Riley coached Philadelphia to the playoffs as an expansion team in WPS and reached the final the next season. And as it waits for Morgan and Heath, Portland still has Christine Sinclair, not to mention the arrivals of former North Carolina star Amber Brooks, making her NWSL debut after her time with Bayern Munich, and Spanish international Veronica Bóquete, the only player other than Marta who won player of the year in WPS.
The pieces are there for the title to remain in the Rose City.
So which team might take away the title?
Start with the team that won't want to be reminded that it gave away the playoff game that sent Portland to Rochester, N.Y., for the final. FC Kansas City earned a strong local following in the league's first season and won over a lot of neutrals from across the map with its open, attacking style of play under coach Vlatko Andonovski. Lauren Holiday led the NWSL with 12 goals, and rookie Erika Tymrak earned extended looks from recently deposed United States coach Tom Sermanni by vastly outperforming the second-round draft pick used to acquire her.
Boston-bound Kristie Mewis was certainly part of the team's attacking success, but it's hard to argue the overall picture isn't improved by the additions of not just Amy Rodriguez, who sat out last season because of a pregnancy, but Sarah Hagen, the prolific college scorer at Wisconsin-Milwaukee who until this season played for Bayern Munich. Losing midfielder Desiree Scott and defender Lauren Sesselmann creates defensive questions, but rookie Kassey Kallman and recently acquired veteran Amy LePeilbet should help.
Western New York, the No. 1 seed a season ago, still has Abby Wambach and should be in the mix, but Seattle could also shoulder its way into the championship picture. New addition Sydney Leroux seems to get better by the month, and Danielle Foxhoven adds another finisher for a team that struggled to score goals, especially when Megan Rapinoe wasn't around.
What awaits the new kid on the block?
The league's ninth team came together in a hurry. Officially announced only a couple of weeks before Christmas, the Houston Dash hired Randy Waldrum away from Notre Dame, where he won two national championships, to coach the team and then went about the process of assembling a roster through allocation and the expansion and college drafts.
The style should resemble what Waldrum did for so many years at Notre Dame, employing a 4-3-3 formation and a balance between possession and pressure.
The reception certainly seems fantastic so far. The Dash, operated in conjunction with the Houston Dynamo of MLS, is opening up previously unavailable seats to meet demand for the home opener at BBVA Compass Stadium.
Still, the realities of building something from scratch have already hit home on the back line, where the Dash lost Canadian international Lauren Sesselmann to a season-ending knee injury sustained on national team duty. They will likely also be without Japanese international Aya Sameshima, who has returned home to rehab a knee injury the Dash thought could be surgically repaired with minimal regular-season time lost. The team also won't have United States defenders Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg until they complete European commitments this spring.
Defense looks like this team's strong point on paper. The midfield has quality with Teresa Noyola, Brittany Bock and Becky Edwards, while Kealia Ohai is already a local favorite and potential difference-maker up top, but the whole thing is a work in progress.
Can Crystal Dunn revive Washington?
Washington has been a good home to women's soccer over the years, so it was unfortunate to see the area's NWSL franchise languish at the bottom of the table during a season in which it won just three times and scored 16 goals.
The silver lining was the No. 1 pick in a draft that included a potential franchise-altering talent.
Crystal Dunn really is that good, or at least has the potential to be that good, as she matures into her professional career. She has already wedged a foot in the door at the international level as an outside back with the national team, but North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said any coach who used her in something other than an attacking role at the NWSL level should be lined up and shot. He was, of course, exaggerating for effect, but you get the point.
The preseason lineups, as well as comments from Spirit coach Mark Parsons, seem to suggest nobody needs to round up the firing squad. Dunn appears set for the kind of role that will allow her quickness and dribbling ability to open up chances for a lineup that now also includes another former Tar Heels great in Yael Averbuch.
Dunn and Ohai aren't the only rookies with the potential to thrive. The big offseason acquisition for the Chicago Red Stars was United States international Christen Press, who will be with the club once her European commitments end. Press should immediately become one of the league's signature talents, but first-round picks Julie Johnston and Vanessa DiBernardo already have national team caps and made themselves comfortable in the starting lineup in preseason.
What larger issues face the league in its second season?
Head injuries: In the most recent college season alone we saw Virginia Tech's Kelly Conheeney, Stanford's Emily Oliver and Richmond's Becca Wann, three seniors who had the talent to help NWSL teams, leave the sport because of repeated concussions. Slate's Stefan Fatsis rightly called the league on the carpet for a slow and disjointed response to a head injury sustained in a game by Wambach. The league could take the lead in what remains a sleeping giant of an issue in women's soccer. Will it?
World Cup cycle: Sermanni made no secret of the value he placed on the new league -- players such as Tymrak and Leigh Ann Robinson earned looks with the national team on the strength of their NWSL play. Sermanni is also now without a job, and some of the speculation in the wake of his ouster focused on exactly that willingness to explore and expand the player pool. So with World Cup qualification on the horizon and a new permanent coach due to be named, has the time passed for players to use the league to get in the mix for Canada 2015?
Economics: Expansion ahead of schedule can be construed as a positive, especially if the partnership between the Dash and Dynamo proves anywhere near as beneficial to the former as it was for the Thorns with the Timbers. But what does that point to for franchises unaligned with MLS teams and playing in venues that aren't always what one would hope for in a professional league? On another front, is a salary structure designed to promote some measure of fiscal sanity in a fledgling league workable for players who have more lucrative offers overseas? Can the NWSL survive or thrive if it is essentially part-time summer work? That isn't entirely dissimilar from the WNBA, which isn't where most stars make their money, but that league has the full backing of the NBA.