By Tim Antoniewicz
After missing her entire rookie season due to injury, second year right back Bianca St. Georges took the 2020 Challenge Cup by storm with strong tackles, high-intensity wing play, and a goal that defied the laws of physics. Unfortunately, St. Georges sustained an injury while training with Canada in February and is unlikely to feature in the 2021 Challenge Cup. With ample opportunities for young players to shine due to the absence of internationals, several athletes have the ability to be the Bianca St. Georges of 2021. Some players such as Ashley Sanchez, Evelyne Viens, and Tziarra King are young players who recorded strong performances in 2020 and are expected to continue to break out in 2021. These players do not meet the criteria, since the emergence Bianca St. Georges was completely unexpected and seemingly came out of nowhere. The following players did not make any impact on the NWSL in 2020, and any could be the breakout player that nobody saw coming.
One such player is Orlando Pride forward Abi Kim. The Pride drafted Kim in 2020, but because she was not offered a contract, she signed with Italian side ACF Fiorentina. She excelled in Italy playing mostly as a winger, and she also has experience playing with the U-20 USWNT. After losing attackers Emily van Egmond, Claire Emslie, and Kristen Edmonds in the offseason, Orlando signed Kim in March 2021. The Pride have less depth behind a formidable starting front 3 of Alex Morgan, Marta, and Sydney Leroux, and Alex Morgan will miss at least the first two matches due to international duty. Fortunately for Orlando, Brazil head coach Pia Sundhage left Marta off the Brazil roster for the April FIFA window, presumably to get high quality competition in the Challenge Cup. Expect Abi Kim to get more chances to show her balance of technical skill and calculated positioning to quickly form a connection with Marta and Sydney Leroux.
Another Orlando Pride player for fans to keep an eye on is center back Phoebe McClernon. The 2020 14th overall pick was signed to a short-term contract prior to the 2020 Challenge Cup, but when Orlando had to withdraw, she was released from this contract to get competitive minutes at Swedish side Växjö DFF. Because this was not a full contract, Orlando retained her NWSL playing rights as a new draftee. In Sweden she slot in immediately and started the remainder of the season at center back. Her play helped a side near the relegation zone rise up the table to a sixth place finish. She impressed Marc Skinner so much that without playing an NWSL minute she made the 11-player protected list during the 2020 Expansion Draft. In January 2021, Orlando committed McClernon to a two-year contract. In preseason games McClernon has been starting at center back with the first team next to Ali Krieger ahead of veteran Toni Pressley and Jamaican international Konya Plummer. If McClernon continues to see regular first team minutes, she will be a major contributor for the team in 2021.
Forward Leah Pruitt was originally a first round selection by the Courage in 2019. Between injury and a deep roster in North Carolina, Pruitt never found her footing with the club. She was waived then selected off waivers by OL Reign in June 2020. While she did not feature in the 2020 Challenge Cup due to injury, she impressed with flashes of dynamic attacking play in all four Fall Series games. The club was so impressed that they added her to their 11-player protected list during the 2020 expansion draft over the likes of Megan Rapinoe and veteran goalkeeper Michelle Betos. OL Reign then signed her to a three-year contract extension in December 2020. Even though she is part of a crowded forward pool at the Reign, the writing is on the wall for Pruitt to have a breakout season in 2021.
After the retirements of now un-retired defenders Sam Johnson and Sydney Miramontez and the anticipated trade of Becky Sauerbrunn, the now defunct Utah Royals FC signed Taylor Leach in January 2020. Leach previously spent her entire professional career in Sweden where she became one of the most reliable defenders in the league. Her three years at Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC, now BK Häcken FF, helped the club become a dominant force in the league and reach Champion’s League qualification. After performing well as a halftime substitute in the Challenge Cup against OL Reign, Leach started against the Red Stars but was forced to leave early due to injury. Leach maintained her quality play in two Fall Series matches. With the relocation to Kansas City, the team has been playing a traditional four-defender system, and competition is open at center back next to veteran Rachel Corsie. Undrafted project prospect Gaby Vincent and 2020 draftee Kate Del Fava are perhaps more suited for the defensive midfield role, and versatile defender Elizabeth Ball is currently the best right back option while the team awaits the arrival of Stanford product Kiki Pickett. Fans can expect Leach to make a strong preseason showing and be one of the frontrunners at center back next to Corsie in the 2021 Challenge Cup.
The NWSL Draft separates the NWSL from all other leagues across the globe, and first year players can make an impact. While Trinity Rodman made headlines when she elected to skip college soccer and went number two overall to the Washington Spirit, her emergence would hardly be a surprise after draft hype and dominant performances at the U-20 USWNT level. Fans should have their eyes on another Spirit draftee. Versatile attacker Anna Heilferty was drafted 19th overall in 2021 out of Boston University with much less fanfare. However, while she is less familiar to fans, she is much more familiar to the club. Heilferty trained with the Spirit in the previous offseason and impressed club veterans with her confidence and creativity on the ball at a younger age. When Heilferty became eligible to be drafted, Andi Sullivan, Tori Huster, and Aubrey Bledsoe told Richie Burke to make sure to select her come draft day. With that endorsement and her immediate availability after electing to forego her extended college eligibility, Heilferty can thrive on a Spirit side that is one of the preseason favorites to make the 2021 Challenge Cup finals.
Another potential impact-draftee who has the potential to make waves at the 2021 Challenge Cup is University of Wisconsin product Victoria Pickett. Whenever an NWSL side is willing to spend an international slot on a draftee, the club believes they can be a game-changer. While Pickett was an injury replacement player in the Canadian camp prior to the SheBelieves Cup, she did not receive a call up for the April FIFA window. For Kansas City, she will be one of their few attacking midfielders available for selection during the Challenge Cup. Pickett has been a starter or key contributor in many of Kansas City’s preseason matches. Hailed in college for her creativity on the ball and nose for goal, expect Pickett to form a partnership with the highly underrated Lo’eau Labonta in central midfield. While Pickett cannot be expected to immediately bring the same influence as Vero Boquete who has since departed for AC Milan, Pickett will grow into the role sooner than fans may think.
Fans do not know what to expect from Racing Louisville FC in 2021. Because it may take time for the offense to click, the defense will carry a heavy responsibility in 2021. The Racing Louisville defense quietly assembled several talented prospects. Well-known prospects include Emily Fox and Addisyn Merrick. One lesser-known young defender to focus on will be Kaleigh Riehl. The 24 year-old center back has contributed at multiple youth national team levels and including a U-20 World Cup. The former Penn State product also received an invitation to the 2019 USWNT Identification Camp. She was drafted 11th by the then Sky Blue in the 2020 NWSL Draft and was expected to be the heir to Champion’s League and Bundesliga winner Gina Lewandowski. Due to the 35 year-old Lewandowski’s consistently high level of play and contract extension, Sky Blue left Riehl off its protected list. Louisville then selected Roehl in the expansion draft. Riehl spent the offseason on loan with Paris FC in France alongside then fellow teammate Evelyne Viens. The duo helped the French side rise to its current fourth place in the table before loan spells ended midway through NWSL preseason. In the 2021 Challenge Cup, fans should look to see Riehl claim one of the two center back spots and anchor a surprisingly strong Racing Louisville defense.
Questions about the Houston Dash defensive depth resulted in the signing of defenders Annika Schmidt and Deneisha Blackwood in the offseason. Reports out of the Dash camp mention that Schmidt is in excellent form this preseason. Schmidt, not to be confused with Canadian and Dash defensive midfielder Sophie Schmidt, previously played for the champions in the Swedish league. Head Coach James Clarkson is already familiar with Schmidt’s playing style since she spent the 2020 preseason as a trial player with the Houston club. The Dash will also be without left back Allysha Chapman for part of the Challenge Cup because she will be in Europe with the Canadian National Team. With reports out of the Dash camp rating her highly, expect Schmidt to be a top contender to fill the left back role as well as other positions on the back line in the case of injury. If she emerges as a quality player, the Dash may even consider shifting Haley Hanson back to defensive midfield.