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