• Backline Soccer

Backline Soccer Round Table on the NWSL

Which NWSL goalkeeper do you expect to have a big year?


Rachel Calkins:

I feel like Kailen Sheridan is often forgotten. Maybe it’s because she’s Canada’s number two (she shouldn’t be), or maybe it’s because she plays for Sky Blue and they’ve had a rough few years.

Whatever the reason, Sheridan has quietly cemented herself as a top keeper in a league with a lot of REALLY good keepers. She has an improved roster playing in front of her in 2020, so things should only get better for her.


Luis Hernandez:

Adrianna Franch. She has an opportunity to break through onto the national team, and I think to do that, she’s going to need a big year with Portland.


Brianna LeBlanc:

Aubrey Bledsoe. I would like for her to get a real call up to the senior squad as well. She’s staying in shape by playing overseas in the W League, even though it’s not hugely competitive. That being said, I’m not too sure how the Spirit are going to look come the beginning of the season. But I still say Bledsoe.


Charles Olney:

Kailen Sheridan. Because she is the best goalkeeper in the league.


Allison Cary:

Kailen Sheridan. She’s consistently good for Sky Blue and now they’ve built a good team around her.


RJ Allen:

Kailen Sheridan has been constantly the one of the best goalkeepers in the league over the last few years. I expect her to have a big season with the changes to Sky Blue.


Adrienne Tucker:

Casey Murphy had an excellent season with the Reign last year. With all the changes to Reign FC over the off-season (losing head coach Vlatko Andonovski to the USWNT, being acquired by Olympique Lyonnais, and hiring a controversial coach in Farid Benstiti), she will likely be even busier this year as the club sorts all of these changes out.


Which NWSL defender do you expect to have a big year?


Rachel Calkins:

In 2020 Kelley O’Hara is going to go a full season without a major injury. I’m speaking this into existence!


Utah will have a new head coach this season (I’ve still not accepted it), and any coach that doesn’t utilize a healthy Kelley O’Hara as a major playmaker should not be in the league. More O’Hara/Press magic in 2020.


Luis Hernandez:

Emily Sonnett. Big expectations for Sonnett, being on a new team like Orlando who really needed to upgrade on the defensive front. She needs to bounce back from her club performance from 2019. Also, she may need to prove her worth if she wants to impress with the national team.


Brianna LeBlanc:

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Paige Nielsen will have a big year. She already proved herself with the Spirit last year. She also has a lot of experience not just in the NWSL but overseas as well. Because it’s an Olympic year there will be disruption after disruption and that’s going to mess with teams. The Spirit don’t have any defenders that are the senior squad so she has a good chance of holding down a spot.


Charles Olney:

Sam Staab. I think she’ll avoid the sophomore slump and take a step up to join the conversation as one of the top center backs in the league.


Allison Cary:

I think Emily Sonnett could have a big impact on the Orlando Pride. She’ll be more a “star” player in Orlando than she was in Portland, and if she steps up to the plate, that could be huge.


RJ Allen:

Ali Krieger’s move to center back on the national team has proven to be a revelation. If she can bring the same quality with Orlando full time, it could be a big year for her.


Adrienne Tucker:

Abby Erceg. Last year her distribution out of the back and contribution to the attack was as important as her stellar defense because it gave even more depth to an already loaded team. Her speed and size allowed her to lock down any scoring attempts from opponents. She's been training even harder during this offseason (per her Instagram), so she'll dominate.

Which NWSL midfielder do you expect to have a big year?


Rachel Calkins:

Jordan DiBiasi is good y’all. The transition from collegiate play to professional play is difficult for many players, but that didn’t appear to be the case for DiBiasi. She showed her ability to attack and defend in the midfield and was a mainstay in the Washington starting lineup. Look for her to take a more commanding roll in the midfield if Andi Sullivan makes the Olympic roster and misses some time away from the club. It’s only a matter of time before DiBiasi is in the full USWNT mix.


Luis Hernandez:

Andi Sullivan. First she’s named to the Olympic qualifying roster. For club, Washington made their choice on which national team players by trading away Pugh. She needs to continue to prove that she’s one of the top midfielders in the league.


Brianna LeBlanc:

This physically pains me to write but I’m actually expecting big things from McCall Zerboni. She is now on what I would call a stacked Sky Blue team. She’s going to be surrounded by a lot of good players and if everything gets together, I believe that she, and Carli Lloyd when she’s around, will be a force to be reckoned with


Charles Olney:

Morgan Brian. A year of sustained health, presumably no Olympic obligations, and with something to prove because of it.


Allison Cary:

Andi Sullivan. I think missing the World Cup was a big loss for her, but she’s getting more consistent time with the national team and settling into the NWSL. Although the Olympics could cause her to miss a big chunk of the season.


RJ Allen:

Rocky Rodriguez is moving west to go to Portland. Having the support of Portland’s current midfield could very well see her blossom.


Adrienne Tucker:

Denise O'Sullivan. 2019 was a fantastic year for Denise and with national team absences for the Olympics she'll be given the opportunity to yet again show us just how pivotal she can be.

Which NWSL forward do you expect to have a big year?


Rachel Calkins:

Debinha. I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain this one. Can we just show some of her ridiculous clips from the last year? Cut me a highlight real from club OR country. I don’t even care. Say what you will about the North Carolina Courage but like… you can’t NOT cheer for Debinha (at least in your head 😉).


Luis Hernandez:

Mallory Pugh. Her development stalled in Washington and she had faded a bit from the national team spotlight. The change to Sky Blue gives her the opportunity to redefine herself. A strong 2020 campaign could also take Sky Blue into the playoffs, which would be a tremendous shift from a couple of years ago.


Brianna LeBlanc:

I’m going to be extremely optimistic and say that Claire Emslie will have a break our year. She’s already showed big potential with the Scottish National team and I think being with Orlando from the start instead of coming in towards the end. I believe that with the right tools and with the right people around her, she could have a big year.


Charles Olney:

Sophia Smith. She is exceptional, and Portland aren’t going to be shy about relying on her.


Allison Cary:

I think there are opportunities for someone not in the national team picture to have a big year due to the Olympics. I’m not sure who that will be. We could even have multiple young players step up and become stars.


RJ Allen:

Shea Groom needed a change of location. If she can find her FCKC form, she could do some damage this year with an Olympic break.


Adrienne Tucker:

Mal Pugh. After being given the opportunity for a fresh start and renewed focus (she won't be going to Tokyo) along with a healthy injection of confidence from her new coach, expect Mal to take on a leadership role. Initially it will be organic - she'll be asked to step up and fill the shoes of the veteran Lloyd. She and the team will quickly find, however, that it suits her AND gives her the confidence and freedom she needs to break out and show the brilliance she has only briefly flashed before.

Which team has you the most excited heading in to 2020?


Rachel Calkins:

Sky Blue. It’s the first season in a long while that NWSL fans aren’t collectively taking pity on Sky Blue and it feels GOOD. This is thanks in large part to Alyse LaHue, a legitimate stadium with *gasp* ACTUAL showers, and a bolstered roster including Mal Pugh. Let’s be real, deep down we all want good things for Sky Blue this year.


Luis Hernandez:

Reign FC. There’s a high potential for drama in Tacoma even with veteran leadership in the locker room. I just want to see how that team looks going forward.


Brianna LeBlanc:

Sky Blue. I’m actually going to go on the record and say that Sky Blue will make the playoffs comfortably. They are STACKED with great players that fell by the wayside with various other teams. All of them put together will truly set off the fire that was sparked last year.


Charles Olney:

Sky Blue. They’re still likely a few pieces away from the playoffs, but it’s wonderful to see them moving in the right direction. A year ago it seemed unlikely they would even exist, much less that they’d have this much talent assembled.


Allison Cary:

I’m most excited to watch Sky Blue. I think they’ve made some big offseason moves and it will be very interesting to see what they can do.


RJ Allen:

Sky Blue has turned around nearly 180 degrees since the start of 2019. If they can keep going they are a legit contender.


Adrienne Tucker:

Sky Blue. The club's reorganization has been transformative, the dividends of which have not even begun to be paid. From a tactical standpoint, the additions of Pugh, Purce, and Onomonu will give speed and versatility to a previously one-dimensional attack while the addition of Zerboni will add presence and stability to the midfield. More importantly, changes to the culture, approach, and management will provide desperately needed buy-in from players who will be more willing to go all out for a club they now believe in. Players and fans alike will be rewarded with a beautiful new stadium, as all of the club's home matches will now be played in Red Bull arena.

Which team has you the least excited heading in to 2020?


Rachel Calkins:

Orlando. It’s not that I’m not EXCITED, I’m just a little nervous. Check that… a LOT nervous.


I don’t understand the way they drafted. I don’t understand the players they are trading away (without replacements). I don’t understand the “artist”’ or his vision. Yeah, they needed to bolster their defense, but that’s not even close to the only issue they had last season.


Please prove me wrong Orlando. Emily Sonnett doesn’t deserve a shit show.


Luis Hernandez:

North Carolina Courage. They’re good. Everyone knows it, and they’re going to continue to be good. The fan base will continue to be happy with their team. For me, I just want more questions going into the season.


Brianna LeBlanc:

The Houston Dash. They haven’t made a single roster move that has showed me they want to make any progress this season. Trading away Kealia Ohai was one thing--she stalled big time after her injury. But everything they’ve done sense hasn’t made me excited for them at all.


Charles Olney:

Utah. I think they’ll be reasonably good, but I don’t understand their offseason and with the resources at their disposal, it feels like a waste to offer so little.


Allison Cary:

I haven’t given up on any team, but I’m not particularly excited about Houston. I just haven’t really been excited about anything they did in the offseason.


RJ Allen:

Utah has done very little to show they have a plan for how they are going to score other than “give the ball to Christen Press.”


Adrienne Tucker:

Orlando Pride. The exchange of the number one overall pick in the 2020 draft for Emily Sonnett was an exciting and absolutely necessary trade. The addition of Taylor Kornieck via the draft shows that Orlando is aware of their need for physicality and additional scoring opportunities out of the midfield. The problem is not in Orlando's squad; on paper they have all the pieces to be a top-of-the-table team. It's that they have an identity issue. Until Mark Skinner decides what type of club Orlando is going to be, thereby dictating the tactics employed on the field, their problems will continue.

If you had the power to make anyone the commissioner of the NWSL, who would you pick?


Rachel Calkins:

I know Kate Markgraf is a little busy, but can’t she just solve all of the NWSL’s issues too?


Luis Hernandez:

Yael Averbuch. If we want to see change in the league, this would certainly do it.


Brianna LeBlanc:

Alyse LaHue, hands down.


Charles Olney:

Stacey Abrams.


Allison Cary:

I really have no idea, but I’m gonna say Mia Hamm, because she has experience in many different aspects of the game and really cares about making it successful.


RJ Allen:

Pete Rozelle.


Adrienne Tucker:

Yael Averbuch.

What are some storylines you are keeping an eye on in for 2020?


Rachel Calkins:

  • How is Washington’s three stadium model going to pan out?

  • Will we actually ever figure out the ins and outs of allocation money? Does ANYONE know?

  • How is the Lyon buyout going to effect Reign FC this season, if at all?


Luis Hernandez:

  • Amanda Duffy going to Orlando. What will she do once she’s there and will this open up the door to firing Skinner if Orlando struggles this year.

  • Farid Benstiti reign as head coach in Tacoma, and the developing relationship with the Lyon ownership. Will this shake things up in the Pacific Northwest?

  • Which team makes the jump to the playoff group to join Chicago, North Carolina, and Portland? Is the league turning into a league of have’s and have-nots? The talking point is how competitive the NWSL is, but it’s mostly the same group of teams since 2016.


Brianna LeBlanc:

  • Sky Blue’s dominant start to the NWSL season

  • Orlando Pride sees fewer than 4K at home opener; will probably fold

  • Portland Spending all their money on one French player

  • RFC/OL’s new coach


Charles Olney:

  • How will Chicago handle the loss of Sam Kerr?

  • Can Washington turn the corner and join the ‘big three?’

  • Which rookies will make a big impression?

  • Will attendances sustain the gains from last year?

  • Can anyone beat North Carolina?


Allison Cary:

  • Sky Blue.

  • The Spirit’s home field experimentation.

  • The potential for Kadidiatou Diani to come to the NWSL.


RJ Allen:

  • Will Sky Blue live up to the hype we all seem to have for them?

  • Can Portland rebound from a season that was somewhat disappointing?

  • Can anyone beat North Carolina?

  • Who takes over as the best goalscorer with Sam Kerr gone?


Adrienne Tucker:

  • Mal Pugh's transformation - as mentioned above, the move to SBFC will be hugely positive and impactful for the young attacker.

Which match up are you most looking forward to this year?


Rachel Calkins:

Portland v Reign FC. This matchup is ALWAYS dramatic and adding Benstiti to the mix is just going to add to it. Build a bonfire… (Bonus pick: Tobin Heath v Casey Short always and forever.)


Luis Hernandez:

Rory Dames versus Paul Riley. The majority of the league plays checkers. They play chess. Seeing how the two gaffers set their squads to go against each other is always fun.


Brianna LeBlanc:

Portland/Orlando’s first game of the season. Seeing Emily Sonnett paired against Lindsay Horan for the first time in both their careers


Charles Olney:

Portland vs. North Carolina. Portland will want to erase the taste of that 6-0 from last year. North Carolina will want to rub their faces in it all over again.


Allison Cary:

I’m excited to see whoever Sky Blue faces at the beginning of their season, and of course, I always enjoy some good Cascadia matchups.


RJ Allen:

Emily Sonnett vs Portland. She was a big part of that team since she started in the league. I’m interested to see her play her old team.


Adrienne Tucker:

Sky Blue versus North Carolina Courage. The additions of Pugh, Purce, and Onomunu coupled with the still developing talents of Paige Monaghan and the veteran presence of McCall Zerboni should give Sky Blue interesting solutions in the form of speed, strength, and versatility to perhaps finally solve the Dunn/Debinha equation.

What order does the NWSL teams finish the regular season in?