The National Women’s Soccer League features some of the biggest stars in the world. With the Summer Olympics kicking off in July, many of those stars will be absent for a significant portion of the season. Additionally, the start of the league’s Challenge Cup competition will fall in an international FIFA window, meaning the national team players will be called up instead of being with their club teams to start the tournament. Fortunately, the league’s impressive depth will be showcased while the internationals are away. This series will highlight five players from each NWSL team who can take advantage of the opportunity to make a name for themselves this season.
It feels like a long time ago these days since the Reign were one of the great forces in the NWSL. Long gone are the days of record points totals and ridiculous unbeaten streaks. The more recent vintage of the Reign is much scrappier. They made the playoffs in 2019 despite depleted roster and an impossible injury record, thanks largely to the collective spirit embodied by former coach Vlatko Andonovski. With Vlatko moving onto greener pastures with US Soccer, the 2020 Reign found themselves in an uncomfortable position of being a team with limited resources and no clear ideas or identity.
The hope for 2021 is that more time together, and more time with the new coach and new system, will allow everyone to gel. They may be helped (or possibly hindered) in that project by a relative lack of big name talents. Megan Rapinoe is probably the most famous player in the world, but apart from her, the Reign don’t actually have too many big names. But that gives the squad some helpful flexibility. 2021 will be a good year for lots of players who are itching for the chance to force themselves into the regular starting XI.
That’s especially true given rumors that some mega stars from Olympique Lyonnais might soon be heading across the ocean to join the team in Tacoma. It’s always nice to get in on the ground floor and let the elevator take you up into the clouds.
With all that in mind, here are five players who have a great opportunity to put themselves right into the mix.
Celia Jiménez Delgado
It seems strange to call Celia a breakout candidate. She’s got two dozen caps for Spain—one of the best rising powers in world soccer—and has shown plenty in her time in the NWSL. But I’m certain that she has another level beyond what we’ve already witnessed. Incredible skill on the ball, intelligent movement, and ever-improving defensive vision. Celia isn’t yet in the conversation for the best fullbacks in the world, but it would not surprise me in the least if that has changed a year from now.
On her best day, Huerta is one of the very best players in the league. She is a creative whirlwind, with quick thinking and even quicker feet. Sadly, we haven’t seen many extended stretches of Huerta at her best. There were high hopes during the last big international tournament in 2019 that Huerta would seize the opportunity, but nothing much came of it. Maybe 2021 will be the year that Huerta can stay in top gear for the whole season.
King may have been the NWSL player to gain the most supporters over the course of 2020. Her debut season for Utah was thrilling. That’s partly because King is so personally engaging, but it certainly helps that she has the skill to back it up. Off the field, it seemed like King didn’t necessarily get the support she needed in a difficult year—and the larger problems at Utah were surely a part of that. If she can settle into the Northwest, and into the Reign attack, she may be poised for a big season.
Over her four year career, McNabb has featured regularly for the Reign in both the midfield and defense. More recently, she’s primarily played as a holding midfielder, with varied levels of success. She’s a dynamic player, who can defend well while also contributing to possession. But her positioning has left a lot to be desired. In games where the lines are fairly compact, she’s been great. In games with more open space, it often seems like she spends most of the game trying to get back into the right spot. If she can get an extended run to develop into the position, she might just be able to give the Reign that solidity they desperately need in the spine.
Spencer is one of the few players still around from the inaugural 2013 NWSL season. Over those years, she’s often found solid runs of form, but has never really made a successful case to serve as the focal point of an attack. That’s probably not going to happen at this point, but there’s still something to be said for the complementary player whose presence opens up the game, making runs to create space, connecting the midfield and attack, and generally making life miserable for the defenders. She’s also had a lot of success as a super sub who can use her pace to punish tired defenders. The opportunities were pretty limited in 2020 due to COVID, but it certainly seemed like Spencer was playing some of her best soccer last year. Here’s hoping for more of the same in 2021.