Boston Breakers 2017 Preview

About a year ago, I put together a preview of the Boston Breakers with some details on the players who’d been on the field for the pre-season match vs Northeastern University. Here’s a list of the Breakers players in my article, in order of appearance:

Whitney Engen, Kassey Kallman, Angela Salem, McCall Zerboni, Sinead Farrelly, Kristie Mewis, Louise Schillgard, Katie Schoepfer, Stephanie McCaffrey, Morgan Marlborough, Julie King, Brittany Ratcliffe, Rachel Wood, Elise Krieghoff, Jami Kranich, Kyah Simon.

Gone Girls: Only Julie King, Angela Salem and Abby Smith are still Breakers for 2017.

Gone Girls: Only Julie King, Angela Salem and Abby Smith are still Breakers for 2017.

Of those 16 players, only Angela Salem and Julie King remain on the team at the start of the 2017 season. At most, eight Breakers who’d been on the team in 2016 will return this season, though injuries or performance could push that number down even more. It’s been an offseason of upheaval for the team at the bottom of the table, but the major roster overhaul should produce dramatically better results. The 2017 Breakers are going to surprise a lot of people.

Who is Here?

Boston has a well-documented reputation for making poor trades. Some of the trades have been seriously bad, resulting in almost no return for players sent to other teams. It’s not always been Boston’s fault, but it’s been a pattern that needed to be broken. This year, the end result of all of the recent trades was the stockpiling of four first-round draft choices in 2017, newly called-up USWNT defender Megan Oyster and Canada WNT defender Allysha Chapman.

The raft of first-round draft choices brought midfielders Rose Lavelle and Morgan Andrews to the team, along with forwards Ifeoma Onumonu and Midge Purce. Onumonu was the last to sign her pro contract, which finalized the opening day roster for the Breakers. Other than these four, only one other draftee made the squad: Goalkeeper Sammy Jo Prudhomme. Peabody, MA native and Boston College senior Hayley Dowd was the only cut last Monday, but I’m told the team hopes she’ll stick in the Reserve squad if she’s not picked up as a discovery player by one of the other nine teams.

Let’s take a look, line by line.


Goal:

Last week, 31st overall draft pick Sammy Jo Prudhomme was signed to back up Abby Smith, who seems on track to be Matt Beard’s first choice in goal despite having his former Liverpool Ladies keeper Libby Stout on the roster. Stout struggled with injuries in 2016, and has been injured for most of the pre-season, leaving many to speculate that Prudhomme’s signing would spell the end of Stout’s tenure in Boston.

I’m of the opinion that Beard has kept Libby Stout on the roster for a reason, and that he’s confident in her abilities based on their shared time at Liverpool. There, with Beard unable to bring in additional personnel, Stout played through a few knocks that might have otherwise had her on the sideline. In 2014, she put up seven clean sheets over 13 matches as on the way to winning the FA Women’s Super League with Beard. She’s earned his trust, and I think he’ll be loyal to her unless he absolutely needs the roster spot at another position.

I’d suspected Prudhomme would start the year on the reserve squad, but with Stout’s injury, she’s had ample time to demonstrate her ability. If Stout returns to full health, she may need to make way on the 20 player roster. With only 20 total first team goalkeeper spots league-wide, it’s the hardest position to hold down.

Abby Smith knows how to keep balls out of the net.

Abby Smith knows how to keep balls out of the net.

Starter Abby Smith looked very good last year, and was generating some “future USWNT keeper” buzz before a non-contact knee injury ended her season after only two appearances. I talked with her briefly at training, and she said her knee was back to normal and she was focused on continuing to improve her footwork and explosiveness. If she can stay healthy and resume her form from last season, the Breakers should concede fewer goals. Naturally, that depends partly on the defense.


Defenders:

You’ve heard of Julie King, right? The long-tenured Breaker returns with a Captain’s armband and what will likely be an otherwise all-new starting backline. Canadian Tasmanian Devil Allysha Chapman arrived in the offseason from Houston, and she should start opposite King, with Megan Oyster and probably either Christen Westphal or Amanda Frisbie at center back.

Oyster got her first USWNT cap on Thursday, and though she seemed to inexplicably fall out of favor at Washington last season, she had a great W-League season for the Newcastle Jets in Australia and looks to be a great acquisition for Boston. Westphal was a force at center back in college, but most of her time last year was on the outside, where her aggressiveness occasionally resulted in yellow cards. I'd like to see her In the middle, where she’d have the game coming to her. But Beard may want to keep deploying her on the outside. In any case, I expect her to show why she was drafted so high in 2016. If not Westphal, I'd expect to see Amanda Frisbie at center back, though she’s missed some time in camp with a minor injury and will need to work into the game day squad. Frisbie can play, and returns to the league after winning the Úrvalsdeild Championship in Iceland with Stjarnan last year.

Christen Westphal must protect this house. 

Christen Westphal must protect this house. 

The other defenders on the roster give Beard some flexibility. Brooke Elby has the ability to start outside in this league, if she can learn how to protect herself from getting flattened in seemingly every game. After she was hospitalized last year, I joked with her that she’s only allowed one ambulance ride per season. She proceeded to get clobbered again, in her very next game. Still, she’s fast, works very hard and gives Beard an easy second option when Chapman is on international duty or needs a break. Kylie Strom earned a first team contract out of the reserve squad and stepped in for Julie King at times last year. When she’s standing still (much like King), she looks more like a center back to my eye, but does a good job getting up and down the pitch and connecting with the midfielders. 

Now, I should note that with Oyster away with the USWNT, Chapman away with Canada, and Westphal and Frisbie not playing with minor illness or injury during last Friday night’s final preseason match against UConn, the defense looked nothing like anything I describe above. Maybe we’ll see Chapman at center back and Elby starting outside. Maybe Beard will run a 3-back and pull Angela Salem back into the defense, or revert to the 5-back he favored at times last year. Maybe, as against UConn, Boston will sometimes have only one defender on the home half of the field. Ultimately, however they line up on defense, Boston will be looking to attack. 


Midfield:

With the first pick in the 2017 NWSL Draft, the Boston Breakers selected Rose Lavelle, most hyped new player in years, from Wisconsin. “Sweet Baby Rose” is going to play, because she can play. In extensive minutes for the USWNT this spring, she’s stood out with her potential to develop into a scoring threat and dangerous playmaker. Last Thursday night against Russia, her audaciousness was on full display with a back-heel nutmeg pass into the box that should have resulted in a goal if Allie Long hadn’t dinged the post.

Lavelle’s fellow first-rounder Morgan Andrews should also challenge for playing time, though she may take a little longer to adapt to the NWSL. Maybe. One thing to count on is that she’s not afraid to shoot from anywhere, and that players who get between Andrews and goal are going to regret their positioning and require ice after the match. Andrews is from New England and has an infectious personality that should quickly make her a fan favorite. 

However, the two rookies may not see the field simultaneously. I’d anticipate Matt Beard deploying his former Liverpool Ladies midfielder (and 2012 WPSL Elite Boston Breaker) Amanda DaCosta to combine with Salem in orchestrating the connections between the defenders and the attacking mids and forwards.

But Rose Lavelle isn’t the Rose I’m most excited about. New Zealand international and former Liverpool Ladies midfielder Rosie White has stood out in training and in preseason games, and I think she’s going to be a beast for Boston. White is only 23, but she's already had 84 appearances and 14 goals for her country. Her silky footwork and smooth runs are fun to watch, and when she strikes the ball it positively explodes off her foot. Against UConn last Friday, White’s exceptional touch and elusive footwork made defending her impossible. She’s the stealth pick-up that I think could be the biggest of the off-season for Boston. 

The Rosie White hype train has room for you. All aboard.

The Rosie White hype train has room for you. All aboard.

As I mentioned above, the Breakers only returning midfielder is Angela Salem, whose composure and distribution doesn’t get nearly enough credit. Do yourself a favor and watch people try to dribble past Salem this year. She isn’t having it. For help, Beard has brought Amanda DaCosta back to Boston after having worked with her in Liverpool. She and Salem should provide good cover for the defense while also finding the attacking mids or forwards with incisive passes. It’s possible Elby or Tiffany Weimer will also get some time in the midfield, and I think both have got the skills to do well. 


Forwards:

After her late-season arrival in 2016, Natasha Dowie netted three goals in seven games. She kept on pace and picked up nine goals over 12 matches during the winter playing for the Melbourne Victory in the Australian W-League, despite having minimal top class support (other than the Reign's Christine Nairn). Dowie gives you everything you could possibly want in a forward, from exceptional hold-up play to incisive passing to clinical strikes. Lift a pass to her at the top of the box and she’ll bring it down off her chest, spin, and thump it in the net before you can blink. She’s also the first person sprinting back to defend a counter-attack, even in the closing minutes of a match. The newly-minted vice-captain will likely to get some more defensive attention this year now that she's not an unknown quantity, but that will just free up her line-mates. 

Dowie will probably work with wide forward Emilie Haavi once the Norwegian recovers from a broken jaw suffered in training last week. The injury resulted in the only known photo of the affable winger without a smile on her face. 

There are other intriguing options for Beard to deploy depending on the matchups week to week. Canadian Adriana Leon has been on fire during preseason, and may get an early nod. Rookie first-rounders Midge Purce and Ifeoma Onumonu may benefit from Haavi’s injury to get some early playing time as well. Both have looked very eager to shoot in camp.

Purce saw extensive action against UConn and took a while to find her footing, but pounced on a loose ball and displayed her elite pace leaving every UConn player in the dust with a flashing dart up the middle of the pitch to earn a one-on-one with the UConn keeper. Her mid-stride, upper-corner shot was blocked away with the save of the night, but the after that chance, Purce looked much more comfortable and involved. And then there is Tiffany Weimer.

Weimer was listed as a forward on the preseason roster, but currently has "midfielder" next to her photo on the Breakers website. She has brought her headbands and energy back to the league, and certainly has a nose for goal. Last season in Sweden's Damallsvenskan, she collected five goals in ten matches for Kvarnsveden, which had to help her confidence after almost two seasons of ACL trouble between 2014 and 2015. Two of Boston’s six goals last Friday came courtesy of Weimer, and she had several other dangerous chances. Weimer's off the ball positioning stood out, helping her be in the right place at the right time more often than not. Long-time fans of the Breakers might remember Weimer from the 2010 WPS season.

I wouldn’t be shocked to see her paired with Dowie, or brought on to give Dowie a break here and there, as her years of experience should be beneficial for the younger forwards as they adjust to the faster, more physical play of the NWSL. 


The Stand

Last season, the seating at the Breakers home games was split into three areas. Most fan seating was in the main stand on the touchline opposite the team benches, and some additional capacity was available in smaller stands behind each goal. This year, the main stand has been expanded, enlarging the seating capacity of the venue modestly while eliminating all of the seating behind the goal closest to the entrance gate. That area will now be used for picnics and group events. 

It's going to get loud this year. Because of all the goals.

It's going to get loud this year. Because of all the goals.


The Table

Though the NWSL has a new broadcast deal with Lifetime TV this year, Jordan Field will not make an appearance unless there is a weather cancellation or other problem at the first-choice venue on one of the four matches for which Boston is the back-up site. Despite lots of Rose Lavelle promotions on Lifetime's website, the Breakers will only grace the Game of the Week broadcast once, during their September 2nd tilt at the Orlando Pride.

So I've been hoping that the Breakers will force the issue and make the playoffs. To host a playoff game, however, they'd need to finish the season in either the first or second spot on the table. I like this team, but I'm not sure they're quite ready for that. But if the pieces fall into place, the Breakers could grab that 4th spot and earn a playoff Lifetime TV appearance. With everything that can happen in a season, I think it's entirely possible.

Here's to 4th Place, Boston. This tide will rise.

Everyone else? This is almost surely not what's going to happen.

1. Portland Thorns
2. North Carolina Courage
3. Houston Dash
4. Boston Breakers
5. Orlando Pride
6. Seattle Reign
7. Chicago Red Stars
8. FC Kansas City
9. Sky Blue FC
10. Washington Spirit


MORE, MORE, MORE!

Last week, I spent an hour talking all things Boston Breakers with the crew at Backline Soccer for a special Breakers edition of The Scouting Report. The optimism is real, friends. The optimism is real.