One Area for Each NWSL Team to Improve Heading into the Regular Season
Written by: Tim Antoniewicz
Chicago – Central Striker. Good thing NWSL teams can traditionally make roster changes until September, because the Red Stars need help on offense. If Mal Pugh is healthy and available this team looks better. Unfortunately, with her injury history and national team status she is often unavailable. If Pugh is not on the field, the Red Stars look slow and unthreatening offensively. Right now an ideal front three for Chicago is probably Watt, Pugh, and Hill, but that is not good enough to compete with top teams. Pugh and Hill have also been dealing with injuries this Challenge Cup. Highly touted and already drafted attackers Madison Haley and Kelsey Turnbow will not join from Stanford and Santa Clara respectfully till 2022. Expect an international splash if Chicago expects to be a serious title contender in 2021.
Gotham – Box-to-Box Midfielder. Gotham were electrifying in the Challenge Cup group stage with exciting attacking play and late game-winning goals. With games being noticeably open in the center of the park, an area for improvement is the box-to-box midfielder. South Korean international Sodam Lee filled the role due to the injury to McCall Zerboni. She has promise but needs more time to adjust to the speed of NWSL play. Gotham may have already addressed this need with the recent trade for Allie Long from OL Reign. Long recently has been used in a defensive midfield role but used to play higher up the pitch when she was regularly knocking in goals for the Portland Thorns. To this day she is still the second all time leading scorer for the storied club behind Christine Sinclair. Another option is to withdraw Carli Lloyd into the midfield where she made some of her best plays in the Challenge Cup, opening the central striker role for Ifeoma Onumonu or Evelyne Viens. USYNT standout Brianna Pinto is also expected to join the club from the University of North Carolina this summer.
Houston – Left Winger. The Dash are still looking for a dominant two-way left winger to play opposite of Nichelle Prince, who has quietly become one of the most dangerously underrated attackers in the league. Currently, the Dash employ a rotation of Bri Visalli, Veronica Latsko, and Katie Stengel. Visalli contributes defensive bite, Latsko is a vertical attacker, and Stengel drifts centrally to bring creativity to the pitch and link play. Do not expect the Dash to make any roster changes since they are rightfully confident with the current squad. If the Dash want to solidify their status as a serious contender, finding or developing a complete and dynamic player for the left wing is the next step.
Kansas City – Creative Midfielder. This team misses Vero Boquete in the midfield. Since her departure, the team used several midfield combinations in the Challenge Cup. Kansas City called upon Lo’eau Labonta, Victoria Pickett, and Chloe Logarzo to fill the creative midfield role in its four Challenge Cup matches. While this is a promising group, none currently bring Boquete’s creative flair or natural chemistry with Amy Rodriguez. While Labonta is naturally a traditional box-to-box midfielder, she was played out of position much of 2020 as a holding midfielder due to the injury of Desiree Scott. Labonta clearly has the creative ability, so she just needs time to adjust. Expect her and Logarzo the equally divide the box-to-box and creative roles in the regular season. Diana Matheson can also fill the creative midfield role once she returns from injury. Victoria Pickett can play centrally but has been dangerous on the wing. Pickett appears to be the eventual heir to the position but will benefit from continued development.
Louisville – Defensive Midfielder. For the Challenge Cup, Louisville started Freja Olofsson in the defensive midfield role. While the Swedish international is promising, the NWSL standard for defensive midfielders is extremely high with many teams boasting two or three top-class options. Olofsson often arrived a step to late to plays, indicating poor defensive positioning. Her first look with the ball seemed to be backwards, which can be the best option but should not always be the first. She will improve under Christy Holly who has already worked magic with this side. The other player to see time in the role was Taylor Otto, who similarly has physical skill but needs time for NWSL-level refinement. The best short-term option is to slot in Emily Fox once Addisyn Merrick returns from injury. Another less-likely option would be to lure Alanna Kennedy back to the states after trading for her playing rights from Orlando. With great facilities, community support, and a fighting team mentality, do not sleep on others following recent signee Gemma Bonner to Louisville.
North Carolina – Center Back. Center back for the Courage was the most glaring need for any team in the Challenge Cup aside from striker for Chicago. Singular holes become more obvious when the rest of the team is otherwise solid, as is the case with these two sides. Once Abby Erceg returns from injury, the Courage still need a replacement for Abby Dahlkemper. This is Kaleigh Kurtz’s fourth season with the Courage, so it is unlikely she will continue to improve under Paul Riley. Kurtz is a solid short-term replacement but not a permanent starter. Cari Roccaro looked slow and did not see time in her preferred defensive midfield role, so it is unclear if injury was a factor. Diane Caldwell joined the team late and saw limited time due to international absence. She played adequately as a substitute in the loss to Gotham but never saw more time. Schuyler DeBree was the only center back to start all four games, but she was often exploited on the pitch and is not ready to be a starter. Hailie Mace can play center back, but attacker is her best position. An option would be to trial Merritt Mathias at center back. Her sizeable NWSL experience would bring stability to the position. Caldwell otherwise seems to be the best option once her fitness improves.
OL Reign – Defense. The Reign need to figure out their defense. This team has so many offensive weapons with the midfield and forward lines finally clicking. It would be a shame if defensive instability denies this club results. Longtime center back Lauren Barnes has seen limited time due to injury, and when on the field she has curiously been at left back. Kristen McNabb is a talented gadget player who can play all over the defense. Madison Hammond has been surprisingly strong. Finding the fourth link will be the question. The Reign use Celia at right back, but her play is often a step behind. Steph Cox was rarely used this tournament. Amber Brooks is an adequate replacement center back but not starting quality. The team rates young player Sam Hiatt highly, but she missed the entire Cup with a head injury. The Reign could consider a three-back system but will likely move forward with Celia at right back. Lyon, please send over Wendie Renard.
Orlando – Right Back. After trialing Konya Plummer and Phoebe McClernon together at center back. It became clear that this Orlando side needs Ali Krieger’s leadership at center back against top teams. Krieger pairs nicely with McClernon, who had an excellent tournament. Toni Pressley is a reliable backup center back who has clear chemistry with left back Ali Riley. Gunny Jonsdottir filled the right back role for the remainder of the tournament. She is a good right back, but her best position is in the midfield. Because they have a surplus of talented defensive midfielders, Jonsdottir at right back is the best way to get the best eleven players on the field together. Undrafted option Carrie Lawrence did not see the field this tournament. While Jonsdottir is the best option moving forward, a true right back would help solidify this Orlando side that already has the potential to surprise fans this season.
Portland – Left Back. Portland should already be having nightmares of Delphine Cascarino and Caroline Graham Hanson. These are two ruthlessly clinical right wingers that have the potential to terrorize Portland in the International Champions Cup. Current left back Meghan Klingenberg offers beautiful service and combination play moving forward but leaves much to be desired defensively. Houston forced Sauerbrunn to make dramatic defensive stops as attackers got in behind Klingenberg. Top teams will exploit this space all season against an otherwise impenetrable Portland side. If Portland plays Klingenberg in the midfield where she performed brilliantly the first two games of the Cup, they have the depth to play others at left back. Madison Pogarch played well in her minutes and is more defensive-minded. Portland seems to favor Natalia Kuikka over Christen Westphal at right back even though Westphal had an incredible tournament. Another option would be to play Westphal at left back since she utilizes an impeccable balance of offensive aptitude and defensive commitment.
Washington – Left Winger. Washington needs to score goals. They finished the Cup with 3 goals in 4 matches, scoring 0 goals in the last 2 matches. Ashley Hatch has been the top central striker for this side for a few seasons, but it quickly became clear that Trinity Rodman is the striker of the future. Played mostly as right winger, Richie Burke should shift Rodman centrally if he wants goals now. After seeing time as central striker, Kumi Yokoyama was less impressive and would benefit from a return to the wing where she performed well in 2020. Ashley Sanchez often plays left winger, but her growing chemistry with Rodman is palpable, warranting a move centrally to combine beneath Rodman. Burke tried Hatch at left winger, but she was largely ineffective. With a surplus of defenders, a creative solution would be to move Yokoyama to left winger and advance Kelley O’Hara to right winger. In the final two matches, dangerous offensive moments happened for the Spirit when O’Hara was in the attacking third. O’Hara played on the wing for the national team before Ellis converted her to an outside back.