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.
A new era for Sky Blue FC dawned in 2020. Freya Coombe had a truncated but meaningful opportunity to institute her style with the team in her first full year as head coach. And with a successful pre-2020 offseason that brought in a lot of new talent, the season was set up to be a promising, if not yet fully realized, look.
Coombe is looking for a possession-based style of play from her team. While the Challenge Cup showed how difficult such a style can be to implement in a league like the NWSL, the Fall Series saw a bit more success for the team, especially once Midge Purce made her debut as a forward after spending the Challenge Cup at right back.
After some moves following the fall series, the team looks a bit different. Sarah Woldmoe is a notable loss, having been a stalwart in the midfield and a team leader for years. And though we only got a small glimpse of how wonderful a Midge Purce and Mal Pugh partnership could be, Pugh’s departure to Chicago changes how many might have imagined the team moving forward.
But the foundation has been laid for a team that seemed to be heading in the right direction at the end of last year, gelling in a way that makes this extended preseason an excellent opportunity to keep moving from where they left off.
So without further ado, here are my five players to watch in 2021:
Though I sincerely hope that Midge Purce will go to the Olympics and score a lot of goals (or play defense) thus rendering this particular preview obsolete, I think we should talk about Midge Purce. It’s likely because Midge’s conversion to right back feels so similar to the Crystal Dunn to left back conversion of years past that I can’t help but wonder if we’ll see something akin to Dunn’s memorable 2015 NWSL season for Purce. If Midge does not go to the Olympics, I think we’ll see her dominate the league this season in a way that I, for one, would delight in.
Though she’s improved her defensive game in the last year or so, Midge Purce will look to remind us all just how much of a threat she is in the attack. We’ve known that Midge is an excellent dribbler and can make fools of her opponents in 1v1 situations since her breakout season with the Portland Thorns. But last year we saw Midge noticeably improve her service, delivering some gorgeous crosses to set up her national and club teammates. It could be that her conversion to right back has added to her vision, but as a smart and creative player across the board Midge is an essential piece in this revitalized Sky Blue team. She could play a key role in making them playoff contenders for the first time in years, and Olympics-or-not will be an exciting story to watch unfold.
Zerboni joined Sky Blue last year after three successful years with the NC Courage and a career that extends back to WPS days. As a player who’s been around the league and on the winning end of championships, she brings a calm to the Sky Blue midfield. And though some players might look at a move from the best team in the league to one for whom success has been so elusive as a negative, Zerboni embraced the opportunity with genuine excitement last year. With Woldmoe’s recent move to Chicago and Lloyd probably going to the Olympics in some capacity, Zerboni’s leadership and work ethic will be even more important if Sky Blue hope to make a playoff run.
Along with her leadership, Zerboni brings physicality and communication to a Sky Blue midfield that will look a bit different this year without Woldmoe. Skilled on both sides of the ball, McCall will also play an important role in connecting the lines as Coombe looks to build out of the back and seamlessly transition from the defense into the attack.
Jennifer Cudjoe provided one of the best stories of the 2020 Challenge Cup. On a short-term contract after attending Sky Blue’s open tryouts, Cudjoe started 7 of 9 appearances last year and immediately impressed. Though it was clear that Cudjoe’s game had room for growth, her passing and decision-making suggested that she is an intelligent player with a high ceiling given the right team and the right coach.
Coming off of such a successful first season, many were surprised to see Cudjoe unprotected at the Racing Louisville expansion draft. The move prompted a lot of questions, leading many to wonder at decision-making in Sky Blue’s front office and some to question whether Cudjoe’s sensational season was more compelling from the storytelling angle than it was from actual soccer playing.
The lengths to which Sky Blue went to get Cudjoe back at the college draft suggest that she remains valuable to the team. I think we can look for her to continue the trajectory of last year, especially after an extended preseason with Coombe and the team. I’m willing to bet that Jennifer Cudjoe is more than just a nice story, and I’m excited to see her game develop over the course of the season.
It’ll be interesting to see how the front line looks with Carli Lloyd coming back after missing a year due to injury. But in Lloyd’s absence last year, Ifeoma Onumanu stepped in and stepped up as the go-to number 9 for the squad. Onumanu brings composure in front of the net and an impressive ability to get on the end of the ball with a penetrating run and intelligent positioning in the box.
Assuming Carli Lloyd is absent for the Olympics or for international duty otherwise, Onumanu will have the chance to further cement her spot on this team. And after a few years of moving from team to team, this may be a real chance for Onumanu to make a home for herself in the NWSL.
Finally, I’m looking out for Imani Dorsey this year. An incredibly versatile player, Dorsey won rookie of the year in 2018 for her work as a forward, and has since primarily played as a defender. With Kailen Sheridan recovering from an injury and hopefully attending the Olympics, Sky Blue’s back line will have some added pressure to help out whoever plays in net this season.
Even as a defender, Dorsey provides valuable assets to the Sky Blue attack, especially as they look to build out of the back. Her composure on the ball and ability to make precise passes in tight spots suggest she can be really successful in this role. And though many expected 2020 to be a big year for Dorsey after spending 2019 getting accustomed to her new position, this chance to showcase her defensive prowess was cut short. So in a new year with a full season ahead of her, I’m hoping to see Dorsey really step up and own her role on the team. She’s got the talent for it, and now she has time to have another stand out season, even if on the other end of the field.