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 starts 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.
The newest addition to the league, Racing Louisville FC, has a mixed roster of veterans, young players, and relative unknowns. The general reaction to their expansion draft was a resounding “meh.” So, there is pressure on Christie Holly and his staff to show what's behind the curtain, and give fans and critics alike an understanding of his draft methods. A major benefit for RLFC is that no one on their roster will be finding themselves on a plane to Tokyo this summer. Continuity is key when building team chemistry, developing a trusted system, and establishing a brand in the league at large. Goalkeeping is an important piece in any system, and right now it seems like veteran keeper Michelle Betos (formerly of OL Reign) has that position on lock. Betos will be a key piece to RLFC, but a keeper alone won’t win you many games. Field players, especially defenders, will be a major factor in the success of this young team. Here are my 5 players to watch for Racing Louisville.
It seems like everyone has been waiting to see just how good Emily Fox really can be. A fantastic youth national team player, the former Tar Heel is a proven winner and got her first senior cap in 2018, and then seemingly fell out of favor with the USWNT until recently. Fox is sure to be the most important player in RLFC’s backline. With the ability to play in the middle or on the outside, as well as move forward into the central midfield, she presents a defensive versatility which gives Holly flexibility in his line ups. The Fox-Betos connection will be key as well. Having a defensive leader paired with a veteran goalkeeper could give RLFC some confidence heading into the 2021 Challenge Cup. Even though defense is unlikely to win them an NWSL championship, a strong goalie and backline connection could win them a few games.
The Swedish international was RLFC’s first pick-up with their allocation money. Some might argue the club should have far more allocation money to play with, but that is neither here nor there. Olofsson is poised to return from a 2019 ACL injury, followed by a shortened pandemic season, and make her NWSL debut. Receiving her first international cap at 18, Olofsson is a very exciting midfield prospect who is likely to pair nicely with the defensive stronghold of Fox and Betos. At her previous club in the Damallsvenskan, Kif Örebro DFF, Oloffson totaled 11 appearances and 1 goal. Olofsson is still finding her Swedish National Team form as she is currently training with their U23 team. The Swede is known for her physical play in the center of the pitch and ability to push pace. RLFC will look for her to slot into their central midfield, playing a key connecting role from the backline to their attack.
The Ole Miss standout was picked up by Louisville from the Houston Dash during the expansion draft. While never quite figuring out how to crack the Dash frontline, Kizer is primed to have a breakout season for RLFC. They will be in need of scoring power, and if there is one thing Kizer can do, it’s score... in theory. Kizer has been heavily rated by followers of college soccer. At Ole Miss, Kizer holds the career goals (48) and career points (119) records, and in her senior year (2018) swept the SEC offensive season records. What everyone is waiting for is to see this translate into the professional game. Getting limited minutes for the Dash over her two seasons, Kizer is relatively untested at the professional level, but is certainly an exciting offensive weapon for Racing Louisville. Time will tell if she can make the jump.
Another former Tar Heel could see big minutes on the backline for Holly. Ashley, initially drafted by Sky Blue in the 2019 Draft, didn’t report in hopes that SBFC would trade her rights (which they eventually did to OL Reign). Instead, she made her way over to Sweden to play for Linkopings FC in the Damallsvenskan, before heading off to Adelaide United in the W League. Ashley found herself back in the States after signing a deal with OL Reign in January of 2020, but didn’t log a single minute for the club. Holly rates Ashley very highly—he was the assistant coach on her U23 team in 2018, and notes her ability to get up and down the pitch and her dynamic 1-v-1 work. Holly’s evaluation is the biggest data point on the defender, as she has totaled just four professional appearances in her short career. I am most excited to see if the risk of taking an unknown in a deep expansion draft pays off.
While McCaskill is a known entity in the NWSL, I thought it was important to keep her on this list, as she will be a lynchpin for this young team and will be tasked with not only being a playmaker, but a leader as well. Furthermore, as someone who got a taste of the USWNT early in her career, McCaskill has the chance to prove her value to Vlatko Andonovski as he is likely to see roster turnover after the Olympics. Drafted in 2018, the 24-year-old is on her third NWSL team entering the 2021 season. Each season, I wait with bated breath to see if McCaskill enters club play in form, because she truly does have some magic in her. Skilled with the ball at her feet, a powerful outside shot, and great service ability, McCaskill’s offensive arsenal is varied and deep. What has yet to be proven is her ability to stay game-ready for an entire season. With her final stretch at Chicago, McCaskill seemed to finally come into her own. Besides her untimely red card during the Fall Series, she was a pivotal piece to an always competitive Red Stars side for most of 2020. If McCaskill has the time and space to create, and can form a partnership with former teammate Yuki Nagasato, there is some hope for a little firepower coming from Louisville’s frontline.