A long and depressing offseason comes to a close this afternoon when the National Women's Soccer League opens its sixth season with a rematch of the Championship tilt between the North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns on Lifetime TV at 3:30 Eastern. With any luck at all (and in dramatic contrast to the invisible phantom approach employed by the non-competing humans on the field during the Championship), this match will be improved by the participation of a full contingent of referees. We'll see.
So, why was the offseason depressing?
The ten-team league, which Managing Director Amanda Duffy insisted was moving full steam ahead as recently as during the 2018 NWSL College Draft, enters 2018 as a NINE team league. Gone are FC Kansas City and the Boston Breakers, with the former loosely reborn in Salt Lake City as the Utah Royals.
Most of the FCKC players were at least initially passed along to the new club, though trades and the draft(s) mixed things up quite a bit. FCKC's 2017 Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski jumped ship to Seattle, replacing Laura Harvey. Laura Harvey, after some intrigue, ended up as the inaugural boss at the Utah Royals FC. So, essentially, the two swapped spots. A few of their favorite players followed behind, so these teams will look different in the new season.
One team that won't be looking different is the Boston Breakers, which folded and ceased operations in the week following the NWSL College Draft. The roster was quickly subjected to a distribution draft, and scattered to the four winds. Since then, roster moves have sent some of the team's former players to a few different clubs. Lotta Ökvist, an off-season acquisition that Matt Beard had brought in in October, was grabbed by the Houston Dash during the distribution draft. She was then offloaded to Orlando last week. Tiffany Weimer landed with the Washington Spirit twice, once via distribution draft and once again after the Houston Dash traded to get her and then waived her last week.
One storyline to follow is that the 2018 NWSL season opens with the Boston Breakers season ticket holders not having received refunds for the packages they'd purchased to see the team this year. Amanda Duffy's comments on the status of the refunds does little to instill confidence that the league will make some of professional women's soccer's longest-serving fans whole. And, I can report that I've heard the words "class action" spoken in more than one setting in reference to potential legal action that may be forthcoming if the league is not. Importantly, the (outgoing and unpaid yet dedicated front office) team did contact season ticket holders immediately following the team's demise in February with the following message:
There has been zero communications from the league since this email from the Breakers. That's just part of a troubling communications record for the understaffed league office during this offseason. Some of Boston's players learned of the team's fate from Twitter, for example. It's not difficult to compose and send an email just to express an awareness that silence on such things is the wrong tack. Let's try, for the season ticket holders:
Here's a thought experiment:
Which process should take longer?
1. The launch of an expansion team from zero to press conference.
2. The refund of money to season ticket holders following the folding of a team, or at least the sending of one email to reassure those supporters of the league that they're important and will be made financially whole eventually.
That doesn't seem terribly complicated, and yet we have a sparkly new Utah Royals FC and not so much as a text message concerning refunds. There's simply no excuse.
NWSL Week 1
OK, it's going to get complicated this year. Nine teams in the league means that not every team can play every weekend, so we're going to be graced with a bunch of Wednesday and Friday matches in addition to the Saturdays and Sundays that have recently been far more common. As a consequence, I'm planning to address match previews in bunches rather than by "Week." There are four matches this weekend and no additional matches until the following Friday, so we'll have an odd situation in which both Utah and Houston will have played two matches before SkyBlue takes the field for one. No sense lumping that Friday match into this week's slate of games, so here are the four opening weekend matchups for 2018.
Portland Thorns at NC Courage
Saturday at 3:30PM Eastern on Lifetime TV
It's a new year and rosters have been overhauled and this is a different team and last year is behind us and blah blah blah, but there's bound to be some crankiness remaining on the NC Courage sidelines after falling 1-0 to the Thorns in last season's final match. Both sides are still missing players who picked up injuries in that game. The Courage won't have Sammy Mewis, and the Thorns are still without Tobin Heath. Of note, Hayley Raso is still overseas with the Matildas, so Portland fans will have to wait for the ribbon season to properly commence once she's back in the side.
I expect a tight match that the Courage win. Portland typically takes a few weeks of hand-wringing and brow mopping before they come together and demonstrate their full abilities, and they're without a few more pieces than is North Carolina on week 1. I expect to see the yellow card in this match as the league attempts to put the toothpaste back in the tube following the embarrassing display at the Championship. Since Allysha Chapman needs only to sneeze near a player to be carded, she's a top contender even if she's sitting on the bench. Seriously, don't sneeze, Chappy. Her teammate McCall Zerboni will have a lot to do in the midfield without her normal pivot partner, and she's another frequent entry on the referee's naughty list—so she's another likely target for sending a message. Going the other way, anything is possible, but Lindsey Horan has been known to offer a nudge or two over the course of a season. Did you know she skipped college and went right to Europe to play for PSG?!?
NC Courage 2-1 Portland Thorns
Utah Royals at Orlando Pride
Saturday at 7:30PM Eastern on Go90 (C'mon Go90)
It's hard to know what to expect from Utah. They're relatively healthy (although Amy Rodriguez starts the season on the 45-day DL as she continues to recover from her opening-day 2017 ACL tear) and have top class leadership to make sure they're ready to go.
Camilla stars her 2018 Pride season in the D-45 purgatory box as well. But otherwise, Orlando are only missing their Australians. They're at home, and will be looking to get off to a hot start before water-break season arrives in central Florida.
Orlando Pride 2-1 Utah Royals
Bonus: Everyone needs to root for the first Royals goal to be a Broon header.
Washington Spirit at Seattle Reign
Saturday at 10PM Eastern on Go90 (Have Faith!)
This match feels like a trap for the Reign. They'll want to deploy Vlatko's new tactics against what was the worst team in the league last year. They've got depth and talent everywhere, but this team has several new pieces and it will be interesting to see how quickly they're able to come together.
But the Spirit should be vastly improved, welcoming back a few injured players (and, in Rose Lavelle, welcoming to the club a frequently injured player who has still not recovered from her 2017 hamstring injury). The first and second overall 2018 NWSL College Draft picks, Andi Sullivan and Savannah McCaskill should make an immediate improvement to Washington's ability to move the ball through the midfield and find the final third.
That said, I'm sticking with home teams on Saturday. Sorry Spirit fans.
Seattle Reign 3-1 Washington Spirit
Chicago Red Stars at Houston Dash
Sunday at 5PM Eastern on Go90 (SunDayFunDay)
Spoiler alert: Neither her former team nor the team currently holding her rights will have Christen Press at their disposal when they clash in Houston on Sunday night. That's not great for either side, or for people who enjoy watching NWSL football.
Adding to the "not great" list for Chicago is the absence due to injury of Casey Short, Julie Ertz, Vanessa DiBernardo, Rosie White and Yuki Nagasato. Oh, and Sam Kerr is still in Australia. Yikes. That might be too many missing pieces to cover with the bench. But this is just the sort of match the Red Stars would find a way to win last year, so who knows.
The Dash has been a very odd team to watch in the offseason. Though they list only Kyah Simon (she's coming back! but she's on the D-45 list) and Thembi Kgatlana (excused) on the injury list, their roster is challenging to parse until we see what new boss (former South African NT Head Coach) Vera Pauw has in mind. She's certainly seen a fair number of players come and go in camp, leading to more than a few shrug emogis being bandied about on Twitter. But she will have a plan and will want to make a statement at home on day one.
Houston Dash 1-1 Chicago Red Stars.