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Backline Chat: NWSL 2019 Reflections

Updated: Jan 1, 2020

Charles Olney (@olneyce): Welcome everyone to our NWSL wrap-up chat. It’s been awhile since we’ve all talked. It’s good to be back. This week we want to discuss the conclusion to the NWSL regular season. Where we are now, and where things will go from here.

To kick things off, what have been everyone’s favorite moments of the 2019 season?

Allison Cary (@findingallison): Toni Pressley coming back this past weekend and getting the captain’s armband

RJ Allen (@TheSoccerCritic): It would be mean to say Jill Ellis’ last game in charge of the team so I am going to say Balcer having the year she has and being really a wonderful pro level player out the gate.

Allison Cary: Also the Spirit’s games at Audi Field. I was at the first one against the Pride and it was a really special experience.

Luis Hernandez (@radioactivclown): For sure Toni coming back from cancer, but I think an honorable mention to Syd also coming back this year.

Charles Olney: The Pressley moment was a great one. And as Luis notes, there are some similar notes with Sydney Leroux coming back after her pregnancy.

I have also loved seeing some of the big crowds, especially for teams that have often struggled for an audience, like Washington and Sky Blue.

Luis Hernandez: It’s a credit to the fitness coach and support staff for the Pride.

Charles Olney: Less inspirational than some of these moments, but I also enjoyed some of the blitzkrieg performances we’ve seen this year. The full North Carolina thrashing of Portland. Those rapid-fire three goals from Reign against Orlando. Chicago at times. It’s fun to see teams truly clicking.

RJ Allen: Honestly seeing Sam Kerr find another gear and managing 18 goals in a World Cup year was pretty great.


Charles Olney: Okay, getting a little bit more into the weeds, what were some big surprises this year? Teams who over or underperformed? Players?

Allison Cary: Even in a World Cup year, I was surprised at just how bad some of the performances from the Pride were. Particularly their top players. Like I didn’t expect the team as a whole to be great but I expected more out of some of the bigger named players.

Charles Olney: I was pretty down on the Pride coming into the season, but I was still surprised. They were much worse than even the low-range expectation

RJ Allen: I think the Sky Blue FC saga was surprising. Starting the year like they did, going through a few sets of coaching and coming out as a team that wasn’t just dropping 3 points every week.

Luis Hernandez: My biggest surprise was the overachieving Sky Blue once the team fired Denise Reddy. I wasn’t expecting them to perform how they did.

Charles Olney: Sky Blue was definitely the reverse image of Orlando. I expected them to be better than 2018 but still pretty awful. But after they fired Reddy, they were genuinely competitive. Combine that with changes at the top of the system and Sky Blue no longer feels like the unwanted stepchild of the league. Which is great news.

RJ Allen: Coaching in the NWSL seems to be a very different job than coaching in a lot of other contexts.

Charles Olney: For individual surprises, did anyone see Kristen Hamilton having this season? RJ already mentioned Balcer. Midge Purce would be another one along those lines.

RJ Allen: I don’t think even Hamilton thought she would have this season.

Luis Hernandez: Nope. She certainly made the most of her opportunities.

Charles Olney: I was delighted to see Tori Huster transition seamlessly into being a fullback. That’s certainly not one I expected.

RJ Allen: I thought Andi Sullivan also had a pretty solid season for a player who 2 years ago looked like a lock for France 2019 for the USWNT and then very much didn’t look like that player.

Luis Hernandez: I also want to say that I didn’t expect this season to be Heather O’Reilly’s last year. I get it, but in my mind she was going to play forever.

RJ Allen: I didn’t expect O’Reilly to be the starting right back for the favorite to win the title. But here we are.

Luis Hernandez: What a way to go out. She’s the reason I’ll be rooting for the Courage. Besides, who doesn’t love an underdog story…

Charles Olney: On the negative side, I wouldn’t quite call it a ‘surprise’ but I was disappointed that Houston wasn’t able to take a step forward. Especially during the World Cup break. That felt like a team with some potential to consolidate on some gains from 2018, but it never happened.

RJ Allen: Houston feels like the boy called “It” of the NWSL.

Allison Cary: They seem stuck in that limbo of not quite in the bottom tier but not quite good enough. And they’ve been stuck in that for at least the last two seasons.

Charles Olney: Really, every season except their first. Points per game for the last five years: 1.2, 1.1, 1, 1.3, 1.1. They’re nothing if not consistent!

Luis Hernandez: Houston gives Orlando hope.

RJ Allen: Can we talk for a moment about Vlatko and the magic he has been able to pull this year in Washington state? The Reign had a starting XI level of players on the IR this year and he managed to get them to the playoffs.

Luis Hernandez: It seems like every move Reign pulled off worked out. I’m ready for the coach of the year to go put a roster together for the USWNT.

RJ Allen: The problem with that is he doesn’t get free reign to do that. He can’t just drop an unfit Alex Morgan for example.

Charles Olney: If nothing else, Vlatko in the job will test a lot of the hypotheses we’ve developed over the past five years about who precisely is responsible for various policies and choices.

RJ Allen: Vlatko seems to be willing to admit when he is wrong too. Which is a huge thing in his favor.


Charles Olney: Alright, let’s talk playoffs. In the first match, it’s the North Carolina Courage taking on Reign FC. The Courage should finally get their home semifinal. Does anyone think the Reign can pull this one out? What do you think will be the key matchups?

Allison Cary: Anything can happen in the playoffs.

Luis Hernandez: I credit his leadership when he had a big absence from the locker room. I think the only thing that didn’t happen as much as I wanted to see was a better year from Shea Groom

RJ Allen: I am going to give the Reign a solid 33.3% chance of coming away with a win. Murphy has been great. Yanez will be back from her one game sit down. I think if anyone can figure out how to get to Riley, it’s Vlatko.

Allison Cary: Agreed. Like I still think the Courage will win, but I’m certainly not counting the Reign out.

RJ Allen: But Lynn Williams and Crystal Dunn and Jess McDonald and Sam Mewis and I could go on. The Courage are stacked.

Luis Hernandez: I really want to see a different group of teams in the final. I just don’t see how NC drops this match at home.

Charles Olney: The big question for me is whether Rapinoe is actually back. She seemed to be giving it maybe 60% effort in their final game this weekend. But she has shown flashes of her top level. If she can put in a full 90, she has every chance to give O’Reilly a nightmare of a game.

Luis Hernandez: Reign have back to back weeks where they are traveling across the country.

Charles Olney: Absent that, it’s hard to see where Reign’s goals would come from. But you could still see a very tight 0-0 or 1-0 win if North Carolina can’t convert on their chances.

RJ Allen: The Courage love to play almost a two back with how high the outside backs get up. That can burn them. It’s rare but it happens.

Luis Hernandez: There are so many factors. The Courage will shoot like three times as much as the Reign; so as long as they convert they’ll win.

Charles Olney: Yanez and Long are probably the key players here. If they can support the backline, they may be able to force Carolina into taking a lot of mediocre shots from distance. I trust Murphy to handle those.

Luis Hernandez: Really all I want is a good game from both matches and not have to worry the ref is going to screw something up where there’s a meltdown on Twitter.


Charles Olney: Moving onto the second semifinal: Chicago-Portland. Chicago will be trying to prevent a fifth consecutive exit in the semifinal. How do you like their chances? And what are the key matchups?

RJ Allen: I do not want another North Carolina vs Portland final. And North Carolina is pretty likely to win. So sorry Portland.

Allison Cary: This is gonna be a good game.

RJ Allen: Sam Kerr vs AD Franch and the Emilys is going to be huge. Kerr has a habit of not always showing up in games that matter.

Luis Hernandez: Which team has less momentum: the one that hasn’t played in what, three weeks, or the team that hasn’t looked great and not scored in a couple of matches?

Charles Olney: If it’s about momentum, it’s all for Chicago. They finished the season on a high and then got a nice break. Portland finished the season stumbling over the line.

RJ Allen: And Portland has been flat out bad lately. Utah broke them.

Luis Hernandez: I want the Red Stars to win. I’ve seen all the buzz on social media to get a packed house.

Charles Olney: You’re right about Kerr often not managing to produce to her normal levels in the big games. I tend to think that’s coincidental more than a real flaw in her game. But it would certainly be nice to get some definitive evidence on that point. A hat trick in a big game would be thrilling to see.

Luis Hernandez: Rory Dames needs to win this game or GTFO of Chicago.

Luis Hernandez: Like the team should fire him.

RJ Allen: I don’t see why Chicago should fire him at all.

Luis Hernandez: because he can’t get the team over the hump

RJ Allen: He is getting his team to the playoffs more times in a row than any other coach. He can’t help things like in 2017 Christen Press couldn’t score a goal to save her life.

Luis Hernandez: I want him to win.

Charles Olney: This is the best Chicago has ever played, and a fulfillment of the plan they have been talking about for two years. I’ve been somewhat critical of him in the past, but I’m a big fan of what he’s done this year. One result this weekend, either direction, shouldn’t wipe that away.

RJ Allen: He is also the best drafter in the NWSL.

Luis Hernandez: All I’m saying is that if we are going to credit Vlatko for all his success in the post season that we need to shine a light on Dames constantly crashing out in the big game

RJ Allen: It’s not like he gets blown out of these games. I feel like getting your team to the post season almost every year is his job. Anything more is gravy.

Charles Olney: The big question for me in this game is the battle of the midfields. Chicago didn’t drop a single point after moving Ertz to the backline but, as I commented when they made the switch, it’s an approach that improves the midfield in terms of its ability to keep possession but potentially weakens it defensively. This will be their first test against a playoff team to see whether it can withstand the sort of pressure that Portland can apply.

RJ Allen: I think a lot of this game is going to come down to the health of some of the Red Stars.

Charles Olney: Portland closed out the season playing effectively a 4-6-0. It didn’t really work that well, but you could imagine something like that causing a lot of trouble for Chicago by constantly putting players into tough decisions about who and where to mark.

RJ Allen: The Chicago midfield has taken a beating in terms of not having their best players always able to go 90. I worry if this is a long 0-0 or 1-1 game Chicago just won’t have the ability to go 90 or 120 minutes.

Charles Olney: Brian and Colaprico are probably the most positionally astute central midfield combo in the league, but this setup puts a lot of pressure on them to both defend and attack. Could be a real inflection point.

RJ Allen: Portland has Heath and Sinclair; they haven’t been great, but a set piece or a PK is not something you want to mess around with either on.

Charles Olney: Another place where that multi-week break could be important. If Chicago comes out fully healthy, that’s a huge advantage. But if they come out rusty, very different story.

RJ Allen: Both sides have very solid goalkeepers. I doubt a dinky goal is going to win it. Both sides are going to have to really put it out there to get a score.

Luis Hernandez: Just because Portland has kind of limped into the post season, there’s no way to discount them. I do like Chicago here. I think the Red Stars backline is stronger. The midfield is more even than I expected and the front line for Chicago has the edge. I think I’d be surprised if they were too rusty.

RJ Allen: The problem with Portland isn’t just they limped in. It’s how truly bad they look doing it. They look like a team in 7th or something.

Charles Olney: It does feel like the weakest Portland has been in quite a while. But it’s also hard to bet against that team. A vintage performance from Horan and Heath could easily tip the balance.

RJ Allen: If Horan is healthy.

Luis Hernandez: If Chicago does look poor, people will be critical on the league scheduling at the end of the year.


Charles Olney: Okay, we’ve already sort of discussed this, but what matchup for the final would people most like to see?

RJ Allen: Red Stars vs North Carolina.

Charles Olney: I’ll stick with the obvious one and also say North Carolina v. Chicago. The two best teams over the season, who match up really well against each other. And a chance for Sam Kerr to finally show what she’s got in the final.

Luis Hernandez: I would like to see Chicago vs Reign, but I’m expecting the Courage hosting the Red Stars at the final

RJ Allen: North Carolina playing at home vs the Red Stars I think is the best case for the league. Sam Kerr vs Lynn Williams. Two great defenses. A ton of marketable stars. And just different enough that people won’t be annoyed like another North Carolina vs Portland game.

Luis Hernandez: It may be the last game for Kerr in NWSL. That bums me out.

RJ Allen: Until Kerr posts it, I don’t buy her going away from the NWSL and W-League.


Charles Olney: Before we close out, let’s talk about the big end-of-year awards. RJ and I already wrote up our picks (in which we actually agreed right down the line):

  1. MVP: Sam Kerr

  2. Defender: Casey Short

  3. Goalkeeper: Kailen Sheridan

  4. Rookie: Bethany Balcer

  5. Coach: Vlatko the Wizard

Luis, do you want to weigh in?

Luis Hernandez: Well, sure.

Charles Olney: And you are contractually obligated to disagree with us. Make your case!

Luis Hernandez: MVP: Sam Kerr – Yet another Golden Boot for her even when she left for the World Cup. Came back and continued to push the Red Stars to wins.

Defender: Casey Short – Personally, I’m favoring a player that’s been here the full year. Yeah, maybe she didn’t start on the right foot, but she got better as the season went on. Plus two goals, one a game winner in Orlando. I think she deserves it.

Goalkeeper: Aubrey Bledsoe – I think Bledsoe is so consistent that she gets overlooked. Nine clean sheets.

Rookie: Bethany Balcer – I think everyone had Balcer’s name penned in for this award and I wanted to pick someone else but I’m talking myself on Balcer. She had the better year. Goals get awards.

Coach: Vlatko. He managed to stitch a team together where others more than likely would have fallen short.

RJ Allen: One final thought before we go: can we all agree the NWSL needs more awards?

Charles Olney: I actually disagree. The NWSL already suffers from award inflation with all the player of the week/month, goals/saves of the week, etc.

RJ Allen: Newcomer of the Year, 12th Player of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year. Give me all the awards. I want there to be an NWSL awards dinner like Orlando does.

Charles Olney: Okay, that does sound fun.

RJ Allen: See, I knew you’d come around. Sonnett and Kling can host.