After months of anticipation, the 2023 National Women’s Soccer League season is finally here! With 12 teams ready to battle for the title, a revamped look to many squads after the league’s first free agency period and lots of new coaches — plus a midseason break for the Women’s World Cup — we’ve got everything you need to get ready for the action this weekend.
Sophie Lawson, Caitlin Murray and Jon Arnold break down the teams, their goals for the 2023 season and the key players who could have a major say in who wins it all.
Angel City FC
– Odds to win the championship (via Caesars): +2000
– Last Season: 8th (missed playoffs)
– Key Arrivals: MF Alyssa Thompson became the first high schooler selected in the NWSL draft when Angel City selected her No. 1 overall. Also: DF Merritt Mathias (North Carolina Courage), FW Katie Johnson (free agent), MF Mackenzie Pluck (signed her first professional contract after an impressive trial), DF Vanessa Gilles (returning from Lyon after loan), MF Scarlett Camberos (Club America due to safety concerns in Mexico).
– Key Exits: MF Cari Roccaro (Chicago Red Stars), DF Allyson Swaby (PSG, loan), DF/FW Tyler Lussi (North Carolina Courage), MF Miri Taylor (out of contract, joined Liverpool), MF Hope Breslin (Angel City’s first-ever draft pick was also not renewed in the offseason despite decent playing time).
Goal for this season
Angel City already proved they can be successful off the field with a record number of season ticket-holders, the league’s highest average attendance and a hold in popular culture fueled by the club’s celebrity owners that other teams could only dream about. Now the challenge is to make the same impact on the pitch.
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Angel City may need to rely on the depth they brought in last summer — notably, Sydney Leroux and Claire Emslie — combined with their new signings. The LA-based team only used 20 of their players as starters last season, the fewest in the league, and their minutes were not spread around the roster as much as other teams. This may explain why Angel City lost steam toward the end of the season, losing four of their final five matches of the campaign. (Had Angel City dropped even just one fewer game in that stretch during an extraordinarily competitive NWSL season, they could have made the playoffs.)
To do that, coach Freya Coombe may need a find to make Angel City play less narrow. Their attack more often than not goes straight through the center of the park, with TruMedia analysis of players’ average positions last season showing the only meaningful width reliably coming from the team’s full-backs, usually Lussi and Ali Riley. Angel City also came in dead last in crosses last season, another symptom of the team’s limited flank play.
But the return of Christen Press from her long-term injury should help some. The club did bring in the aforementioned Leroux and Emslie in after she went down hurt, but Angel City took the third-fewest shots of any team in the league, which fell in line with their relatively unimpressive goal tally. If Press can return to the sensational form she had before her injury — a big if — it may simply be a matter of getting all of Angel City’s attacking pieces clicking together. If so, playoffs are certainly attainable.
Player to watch: Christen Press
There will certainly be plenty of interest in 18-year-old Thompson. First-year rookies don’t always get the chance to prove themselves in the NWSL, but Thompson has already made her U.S. women’s national team debut last year and could immediately find her breakout as a pro.
No.1 pick Thompson ‘overwhelmed’ by the race to draft her
Alyssa Thompson talks to Futbol Americas after becoming the top pick for Angel City in the 2023 NWSL draft.
But there is arguably no more important player to Angel City than Press. Without the local USWNT star for most of last year, Angel City’s top scorer was midfielder Savannah McCaskill, and the team never quite looked quite the same since her injury.
Despite all the time Press missed, she was still somehow tied for fourth in goals and assists for Angel City last season. A full season of what she was doing sure seems like it could’ve been enough to make Angel City a first-year playoff team. — Murray
Chicago Red Stars
– Odds: +1400
– Last Season: 6th (eliminated in first round of playoffs)
– Key Arrivals: MF Julia Bianchi (Palmeiras), MF Cari Roccaro (Angel City), MF Addie McCain (free agent, previously Kansas City Current), FW Jenna Bike (NY/NJ Gotham FC)
– Key Exits: MF Vanessa DiBernardo (the team’s captain last season left via free agency), MF Danielle Colaprico (free agency), MF Morgan Gautrat (free agency), FW Rachel Hill (free agency), MF Sarah Woldmoe (retirement), DF Zoe Morse (Brighton & Hove Albion).
Goal for this season
What do you do when you still have arguably the best forward in the league right now in Mallory Swanson (née Pugh), but pretty much your entire midfield has been replaced? The Chicago Red Stars are about to find out.
Last season, new coach Chris Petrucelli took over to replace disgraced former manager Rory Dames, who is now banned from coaching due to many abuse allegations against him. Under Petrucelli, who was hired after a thorough interview process that included the players themselves, the team quickly transformed the way it played.
Petrucelli moved to a three-back defense, and the Red Stars went from a team that played transitional soccer to one that held onto the ball and possessed more. Per TruMedia, the Red Stars’ average possession last season (51.6%) was higher than any previous season, all of which were under Dames. Last season’s Red Stars also had more through-balls, but fewer crosses than any previous season, too — a glimpse of the team moving away from pure attack-and-counter soccer.
But if 2022 was the first year of building toward this new identity, then 2023 may not allow for the smoothest continuation of this project. The midfield has been gutted in the offseason in large part due to the NWSL’s first-ever free agency period, during which virtually the entire Red Stars’ midfield decided to go elsewhere. Exacerbating the impact is that Vanessa DiBernardo, Danielle Colaprico and Morgan Gautrat had all been starters together in Chicago’s midfield since 2018.
The Red Stars’ midfield has been crucial to dictating tempo, winning the ball and finding ways to feed the team’s excellent strikers over the years (Samantha Kerr in the past, Mallory Swanson now), but the midfield is now a work in progress. Figuring that out while trying to stay competitive is the trick.
Player to watch: Mallory Swanson
The Red Stars have always had great forwards and this season it’ll again be Swanson. She was sensational last season for Chicago and somehow looked even better for the U.S. during the SheBelieves Cup in February, seemingly scoring on every good chance she had.
The Red Stars will probably need her to continue being as efficient. With the questions in the midfield that may or may not be answered right away, it’s unclear if Swanson will keep getting the service she did in the past, meaning she might have to do more with less if the midfield doesn’t click right away.
But another question is also whether Swanson can keep up her incredible form. As mentioned in ESPN’s review of the the 2023 SheBelieves Cup, here was Swanson 2021’s NWSL season: 25 matches, five goals, four assists (50 chances), 3.1 shots per 90 minutes, 0.54 xG+xA per 90 minutes. Now, compare that to her 2022: 17 matches, 11 goals, six assists (38 chances), 4.3 shots per 90 minutes, 0.82 xG+xA per 90 minutes. That’s a remarkable improvement.
The World Cup and the prospect of going into that tournament on fire should hopefully be the motivation to keep Swanson on track, but maintaining top form is always easier said than done. — Murray
– Odds: +1200
– Last Season: 4th (eliminated in first round of playoffs)
– Key Arrivals: FW Diana Ordoñez, MF Bárbara Olivieri, GK Devon Kerr, MF Havana Solaun
– Key Exits: MF Brianna Visalli (Brighton & Albion Hove), MF Tiernny Wiltshire (contract expired), FW Valerie Gauvin (contract expired)
Goal for this season
You have to consider 2022 as a forward step for the Dash, with the team making the playoffs for the first time in the history of the club, which played its first season in 2014. However, a late goal from the Kansas City Current’s Kate Del Fava ended that playoff run before it really could get started as KC moved past the first round. Now, the expectation is to have a strong regular season and do it again, this time notching at least a first-ever postseason victory and … why not go for the whole thing?
Lofty goals aside, the Dash will first have to show they can cope with change, not so much in the squad where continuity largely reigns, but in their tactics. After pushing the squad forward as interim manager in 2022, Juan Carlos Amoros decamped for Gotham FC this winter, and long-time OL Reign assistant Sam Laity takes over in Houston. A survivor under coaches who played different styles, what Laity wants to do now that he’s in charge is a question that won’t be answered immediately.
However, we do know he’ll have more firepower to work with than Amoros. The Dash swapped draft picks and allocation money to the North Carolina Courage for Diana Ordoñez, who scored 11 goals in her rookie season and now moves out of Debinha’s shadow. She’ll need to partner well with Ebony Salmon, who arrived in a June trade from Racing Louisville and scored nine NWSL goals last season, often from the same types of spaces in which Ordoñez liked to operate. Last year, Salmon worked with Nichelle Prince, but Prince will miss the season after tearing her Achilles with Canada in November.
At the back, the Dash stuck with what they have, and with Sophie Schmidt in front of the back four, Laity has a player who can recover the ball and keep the heat off center-back pairing Katie Lind (née Naughton) and Ally Prisock.
Is that what he wants to do? We’re still not sure. What we do know is a playoff win would be more progress for this team.
Player to watch: Maria Sanchez
The pride of American Falls, Idaho and a Mexico international, Maria Sanchez will need to stand out this season if the Dash are going to hit their ceiling. There’s no reason to think she won’t.
The Dash leaned on her in 2022 with only Lind and Prisock playing more minutes. Finding the back of the net more than twice, though, and upping her assist number from four will be goals under Laity, but should be easier with Ordoñez to connect with. Their chemistry already is strong, playing together with El Tri, and if they can link up often at Shell Energy Stadium, fans in Space City will have plenty to cheer. — Arnold
Kansas City Current
– Odds: +500
– Last Season: 5th (lost NWSL championship)
– Key Arrivals: MF Morgan Gautrat (Chicago Red Stars), MF Vanessa DiBernardo (Chicago Red Stars), MF Debinha (North Carolina Courage), DF Hanna Glas (Bayern Munich)
– Key Exits: FW Elyse Bennett (OL Reign), FW Lynn Williams (NY/NJ Gotham FC)
Goal for this season
Boasting a reputation as a team that likes to make a splash, the Current will only have eyes for the championship and/or the Shield this season. Having come agonizingly close to their first silverware last year losing the championship final to the Portland Thorns, the Current will be heading into the new year with a wealth of experienced gained over the course of their first official season as the “KC Current” following a nameless first year in 2021.
Having made some ruthless offseason moves, the club has added experience to a roster that popped with younger talent last season. And although the team may end up looking quite different in midfield this season with the bulk of their signings intended to fill that part of the pitch, there should be ample room for balance as they look to build on their fifth-place finish last year.
One of the few women’s teams with a bespoke training ground, fans will already know Kansas City aren’t in the league to make up the numbers. Indeed, being able to lure a player like Debinha speaks to how attractive their project is. On the face of it, there are few things holding the team back or pushing their ceiling down except a slight lack of experience, be it from Matt Potter, who is only heading into his second season as a head coach, or from the younger players in the team.
However, in the context of the 2022 season being a springboard, the Current seem primed to take the 2023 season by storm. In fact, a season that yields no silverware could well be seen as a failure given this club’s abundant potential.
Player to watch: Debinha
Well known to fans of NWSL from her five years at the Courage, Debinha is one of the great No. 10s of the league, routinely wowing crowds with individual brilliance and plenty of sauce, scoring vital goals en route to silverware. Although the Current attack split the attacking work last season, the team lacked a real flair player which is where Debinha can shift the scales with her light footwork and ability to tie defenders in knots.
Previously a little light in terms of her goal numbers, 2022 saw Debinha claim her best-ever tally in the league and she’s as likely to be popping up on the scoresheet for the Current as she is assisting those ahead of her. — Lawson
NJ/NY Gotham FC
– Odds: +1800
– Last Season: 12th out of 12 teams (missed playoffs)
– Key Arrivals: MF Yazmeen Ryan (Portland Thorns), FW Lynn Williams (Kansas City Current), FW Svava Rós Guðmundsdóttir (Brann)
– Key Exits: FW Paige Monaghan (Racing Louisville)
Goal for this season
Entering their third season since their rebrand to Gotham from Sky Blue, the project on the East Coast remains an intriguing one, though it’s clear to see there have been multiple missteps in Gotham’s efforts to become a key player in the NWSL. Yet having secured the services of incoming coach Juan Carlos Amoros ahead of the new season, as well as locking key players like Midge Purce and Ifeoma Onumonu into new deals, Gotham finally feel poised to find the key stability they’ve been lacking.
Although the tri-state team will be looking for a top half of the table finish and a playoff spot, using the season to rebuild would be more prudent and would position them for a strong push in 2024. A long way from the Sky Blue team that consistently failed in the care of their players off the pitch, Gotham has become a team that players don’t dread to join. However, their inconsistencies on the pitch need to be fixed if the team is to fulfil its long-term potential.
So while there is little glamour in a mid-table finish, setting a goal of finishing above eighth or so is a realistic one for a team that is still in progress.
Player to watch: Lynn Williams
An unselfish attacker who shot to the fore during her early NWSL seasons thanks to her natural partnership with Jess McDonald, Lynn Williams has shown she can score goals wherever she goes but the underrated part of her game remains her movement off of the ball. A willing runner, the striker spends as much time trying to create space for her teammates and stretch defenses as she does in the box, taking shots on goal.
Still a player who gets called out for her low[er] conversion rates, Williams is a complete centre-forward and having spend the last season out injured, she’ll be keen to get back onto the pitch and gel with Gotham’s promising attack. — Lawson
North Carolina Courage
– Odds: +1000
– Last Season: 7th (missed playoffs)
– Key Arrivals:: DF Emily Fox (traded from Racing Louisville), DF Tyler Lussi (traded from Angel City), MF Narumi Miura (Tokyo Verdy Beleza)
– Key Exits: FW Debinha (free agency), MF Katie Bowen (released), DF Jaelene Daniels (née Hinkle) (option not picked up), DF Abby Erceg (Racing Louisville), DF Carson Pickett (Racing Louisville), FW Diana Ordóñez (traded to Houston Dash)
Goal for this season
The Courage have pretty much been left to rebuild ever since now-disgraced ex-coach Paul Riley was fired at the end of 2021. (His alleged actions prompted years of investigations into inappropriate coach behavior in the NWSL and will be his legacy rather than the two NWSL championships won by the Courage under him).
A mass exodus of players followed as the Courage said farewell to the likes of U.S. national team stars Samantha Mewis and Lynn Williams last season. It feels a bit like more of the same coming into 2023 with Debinha, one of the most exciting and creative forces in the NWSL, opting to leave once she became a free agent.
That’s not to say the Courage don’t still have good players — in addition to the new arrivals, Brazilian forward Kerolin is a special, audacious player, while midfielders Brianna Pinto and Denise O’Sullivan have been consistent and reliable. But after the Courage missed playoffs last year for the first time since 2015 (going back to when the team was the Western New York Flash), there’s a sense this team is no longer desperately trying to keep what worked in the past.
Of the Courage’s 11 players who played in 19 or more games in last season’s 24-game season, six are gone. The two players responsible for more than half of the Courage’s goals (Debinha and Ordoñez) are also gone. That’s why it doesn’t really matter that last season, the Courage had one of the best attacks in the league, ranking second in goals scored, third in expected goals, first in shot conversion, first in “big chances” generated and second in successful take-ons. What will the Courage look like in 2023? Who knows.
This is very much a rebuilding year for the Courage. Sean Nahas, the coach who took over amid Riley’s firing and remains at the helm, needs to figure out this new team’s identity and chart a path forward.
It appears now is the time for the Courage to finally become something new.
Player to watch: Kerolin
Now that the Courage have lost the players responsible for most of their goals, all eyes are on Kerolin to shoulder the scoring burden.
Kerolin was third on the Courage in “progressive carries” into the opposition territory last season, per FBref — the Courage’s top two, Debinha and Carson Pickett are both gone — and Kerolin was first in progressive passes received. She is incisive at finding spaces to attack into and is adept at slicing her way into a back line, as she showed during the SheBelieves Cup with Brazil last month.
But now she’s going to need to be the one finishing chances more often. Her six goals and four assists (from an xG of 4.74 and a xA of 3.38) in 13 games last season wasn’t bad. She just unfortunately missed a chunk of the season for injury — including a bad tackle at the NWSL Challenge Cup final that heaped more scrutiny onto the NWSL’s refereeing and may have helped the push for VAR this season.
At 23 years old, Kerolin has the potential to become one of the NWSL’s top players, and indeed the world’s with a talented young Brazil team around her. — Murray
– Odds: +375
– Last Season: 1st: NWSL Shield winners (eliminated in playoff semifinals)
– Key Arrivals: FW Elyse Bennett (Kansas City Current), DF Emily Sonnett (Washington Spirit), MF Luany (Gremio)
– Key Exits: DF Sinclaire Miramontez (waived)
Goal for this season
The goal for this Reign season is the same as it has been for so many other: Win the damn championship. Having reached the playoffs six times in nine NWSL seasons, the Reign even made it all the way to the final in their first two appearances in the postseason, yet the championship has remained elusive.
Claiming their third Shield last season, the Reign fell at the penultimate hurdle, failing to progress past the semifinals, yet for a team that only got better as the 2022 season went on, little has changed in the way of personnel. Indeed, unlike the rest of the league, the Reign have barely lost any players in the offseason, but have added more experience and talent with their trio of nondraftee signings.
The Reign still possess three cornerstones of the side in defender Lauren Barnes, midfielder Jess Fishlock and forward Megan Rapinoe, as well as coach Laura Harvey. While there are no surprises about this team, there is a consistency that so many of their rivals lack; they won’t need to grow into the season or find the right balance as it’s already in-house.
Although a season without the championship would be far from a failure, especially with the team having moved to Lumen Field on a permanent basis as the club continues to grow off of the pitch, it is the undeniable goal for a team well capable of claiming the biggest prize in the NWSL.
Player to watch: Phallon Tullis-Joyce
OL Reign’s first choice goalkeeper, Phallon Tullis-Joyce has fast become a bit of a cult figure around NWSL fans thanks to her degree in (and voracious love for) marine biology. But along with her aquatic pursuits, the rangy shot-stopper is winning plaudits for her goalkeeping. Finishing the regular season with just 19 goals conceded in 22 games, the 6-foot-1 keeper kept nine clean sheets over the course of the season to help the Reign claim the best defensive record in 2022.
Tall and wiry, there’s something reminiscent of Tiane Endler in how Tullis-Joyce springs across her goal to claw shots away and acrobatically deny opposition attackers. For the wealth the Reign boast in attack, Tullis-Joyce stands out as a star at the back. — Lawson
– Odds: +2500
– Last Season: 10th (missed playoffs)
– Key Arrivals: FW Adriana (Corinthians), DF Emily Madril (draft), FW Messiah Bright (draft)
– Key Exits: MF Gunnhildur Jónsdóttir (Stjarnan), GK Erin McLeod (Stjarnan), DF Toni Pressley (Breiðablik)
Goal for this season
Heading into their eighth NWSL season, the Pride continue to hunt sustainability and security, too often the team that has tried to build a house on sand rather than with adequate foundations. The onus will be on Seb Hines, who was first promoted to interim (from assistant) coach last summer before being given the job on a permanent basis of this season, to finally construct a strong team that can compete. The 34-year-old has his work cut out for him: Orlando have consistently struggled to put out a cohesive balanced team despite the talent they’ve had over the years.
Yet there is a good feeling around Hines, with the team having put a lot of faith in the incoming draft class — not least with third overall draft pick, Emily Madril, and second round goal-getter Messiah Bright. This season seems much more about finally building for the future, so hoping for any kind of lofty finish in the table may be a little over-optimistic. Steady growth and the bedding-in of those rookie and sophomore players to develop a team that can consistently compete is the key for Hines and the Pride.
Player to watch: Marta
What more can be said about Marta? Named as captain for the new season, the Brazilian legend will be making her return from an ACL injury that took her out of the mix for all of last season and will be bringing not just her irrepressible style, but like she has so often for her country, she’ll be key in bringing the team together on the pitch.
A fiercely intelligent footballer who is one of the greatest to preach ginga (“samba”) soccer, the 5-foot-4 footballer has been delighting fans around the world with her silky-smooth touch and near telepathic control over the ball and at 37 years old continues to deliver breathless joy on the ball. — Lawson
– Odds: +280
– Last Season: 2nd (won NWSL championship)
– Key Arrivals: FW Izzy D’Aquila (draft), GK Lauren Kozal (draft)
– Key Exits: MF Yazmeen Ryan (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
Goal for this season
The Thorns won the NWSL championship last season with a 2-0 win over the Kansas City Current, and the players returning played more than 90% of last season’s minutes, second-most in the league, per American Soccer Analysis. Then again, despite on-field success, things have seemed broken in the locker room and the front office. Improprieties were revealed in various NWSL investigations, including the NWSL/NWSLPA investigative report published late last year.
The club is for sale, with owner Merritt Paulson saying in December he “regret[s] the role our organization played in the failures identified by the investigations.” Mike Norris takes over as head coach after Rhian Wilkinson resigned, and he’ll have plenty of great players to put together.
There’s reigning MVP Sophia Smith, who scored 14 goals last season. There’s goalkeeper Bella Bixby whose nine clean sheets topped the league. There’s a defense anchored by national team stalwart Becky Sauerbrunn, with U.S. teammate Crystal Dunn in front of her in the midfield. There’s veteran forward Christine Sinclair, back for an 11th season in Portland.
The hope, with so many talented players in the fold who already know each other well, will be an even better regular season and a third NWSL Shield, followed by a successful title defense in the postseason. But with other teams around the league working to knock them off the throne, a significant number of players who will be otherwise occupied with the World Cup in July and August, and a season-ending knee injury to forward Janine Beckie, there are pitfalls on their path to a repeat.
Player to watch: Sam Coffey
Sam Coffey was beaten to the rookie of the year award by Naomi Girma, but still landed in the league’s Best XI thanks to a shockingly quick adaptation to a more withdrawn role than she’d played in college. Becoming a six earned her that Best XI spot, national team call-ups and a contract extension from the Thorns this offseason.
After missing out on the roster for the SheBelieves Cup, Coffey also is looking to convince U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski & Co. that she deserves a place on the plane. That’s even more reason for fans to be tuned in. — Arnold
– Odds: +2500
– Last Season: 9th (missed playoffs)
– Key Arrivals: DF Carson Pickett (North Carolina Courage), FW Uchenna Kanu (Tigres), DF Abby Erceg (North Carolina Courage), DF Elli Pikkujamsa (KIF Örebro)
– Key Exits: DF Emily Fox (North Carolina Courage), DF Gemma Bonner (Liverpool)
Goal for this season
Two seasons of existence have resulted in two ninth-place finishes for Racing Louisville. Going up a spot or two in the table would be a boost. And, you know, you’re not that far from the playoff places after that.
First things first, Racing needs to be on the same page. Their roster announcement this week noted the team has players from six different continents. That should make for a unique locker room, but one head coach Kim Björkegren needs to figure out how to blend together both culturally and tactically. With seven potential World Cup players, Björkegren also will need to find a way to foster depth in the team as well, with the NWSL taking two weekends off during the tournament this summer (in our hemisphere, at least).
Offseason moves should help, especially at the back where Racing is likely to start three new players across the back four in Erceg, Pikkujämsä and Pickett, a left back whose seven assists last season was tied for the NWSL lead. They’ll work to make sure goalkeeper Katie Lund doesn’t need to make 112 saves, a league record, again in 2023 like she did in 2022.
Things will be more familiar to fans at Lynn Family Stadium moving forward, too. Jaelin Howell will hope for an impressive open to the campaign as she looks to win back a spot in the United States midfield ahead of the 2023 World Cup, while NWSL all-time assist leader Jessica McDonald looks to continue providing after four assists last season and build on the three goals she added. That will be especially critical with Nadia Nadim out with a long-term knee injury, though former Tigres striker Kanu should be more than happy to finish what McDonald starts. She scored 22 goals in Liga MX but may need time to adapt after arriving to preseason in mid-March.
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Player to watch: Wang Shuang
It was only four games, but what a four games it was.
Wang Shuang joined Racing in August 2022 and looked electric in the few matches she played. She assisted a goal and, despite not finding the net in league play, scored a nice goal in The Women’s Cup, helping the team past AC Milan before a loss to OL Reign in the final.
It’s a small sample size, but the way in which Wang played — picking out progressive passes, getting forward from the midfield to combine with the forwards — time to adjust and the additions around her in attack mean it could be a scintillating season from the China international and former PSG star. — Arnold
San Diego Wave FC
– Odds: +650
– Last Season: 3rd (eliminated in playoff semifinals)
– Key Arrivals: MF Meggie Dougherty Howard (Orlando Pride), FW Rachel Hill (Chicago Red Stars), MF Danielle Colaprico (Chicago Red Stars)
– Key Exits: FW Katie Johnson (Angel City), GK Carly Telford (retired)
Goal for this season
It’s a high bar for a team in year two, but expectations are raised given the Wave’s strong start in its expansion season.
There’s more to soccer than just scoring and stopping goals, but Wave FC managed to find the back of the net thanks to 15 goals from Alex Morgan and stopped goals from going in thanks to Kailen Sheridan, who kept eight clean sheets on the way to earning NWSL goalkeeper of the year honors, and a defensive unit anchored by rookie of the year Naomi Girma.
Head coach Casey Stoney only saw her team get stronger in the winter. The team looked to address its biggest question mark by bulking up its midfield with a pair of additions in free agency: Dougherty Howard, who joins from the Orlando Pride, and Colaprico, who has spent the bulk of her career with the Chicago Red Stars. Otherwise, Morgan and Jaedyn Shaw are in the fold up top, as is Melanie Barcenas, who at 15 is the youngest-ever player to sign in NWSL. Girma, Kaleigh Riehl and Sheridan are still present at the back.
This team also has a tremendous home-field advantage at Snapdragon Stadium. Why not dream big?
To avoid a sophomore slump, Stoney will need to cope with significant absences during the World Cup and also make it through at least a portion of the season without Abby Dahlkemper, who is recovering from back surgery. But the England native has shown she’s a creative, capable manager and has a team with a mix of veteran savvy and up-and-coming talents.
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Player to watch: Naomi Girma
Going with Naomi Girma isn’t exactly going rogue here. Last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick, Girma already has more than a dozen U.S. senior caps, is a lock for Aus-NZ and not only was named the league’s rookie of the year, but took the defender of the year honors as well. The question now: Just how much further can she go? Was 2022 the breakout season or does the Stanford product have even more to offer in 2023?
We know she can shut down attackers. We know she is calm on the ball and can start attacks better than any defender in the pool. Can she take another step forward, continuing to be the best defender in the league and solidifying herself among the best in the world? — Arnold
– Odds: +1300
– Last Season: 11th (missed playoffs)
– Key Arrivals: DF Gabby Carle (Kristianstads DF), MF Chloe Ricketts (the league’s youngest-ever signing, until another 15-year-old joined San Diego this week)
– Key Exits: DF Kelley O’Hara (joined NY/NJ Gotham FC on the first day of the NWSL’s new free agency period), DF Emily Sonnett (traded to OL Reign), FW Tinaya Alexander (Montpellier, then Reading)
Goal for this season
Arguably the biggest arrival not on the list above is the coach: Mark Parsons, the 2016 NWSL coach of the year, who formerly coached the Portland Thorns to an NWSL championship in 2017 and two NWSL Shields in 2016 and 2021. Parsons coached the Spirit from 2013 to 2015 in less than ideal circumstances, under an owner who didn’t really seem to know what he was doing in running a professional soccer team.
Parsons arrives to a Spirit team that should feel more like the well-resourced setup he had in Portland than his former days in Washington. Michele Kang formally became the majority owner of the Spirit after a power struggle with the outgoing owners, Steve Baldwin and Bill Lynch, in which Spirit players openly backed Kang. After spending $35 million to buy the club, Kang has vowed further investment, and Parsons insists what Kang and sporting director Mark Krikorian are building is the most impressive he’s seen, even after his time coaching the Netherlands.
But for now, that investment hasn’t included a large influx of players, and the task for Parsons is to get more out of a relatively young Spirit roster that looks a lot like the team last season that fell one spot shy of last place. He should be able to do that — in Portland, he had an eye for developing younger players, even as the team had no shortage of star veterans. (Parsons insists more players are coming to Washington.) His teams also tend to be aggressive and attacking oriented, and he’s already making changes, like trying midfielder Dorian Bailey at O’Hara’s former right-back spot.
Still, it’s hard to say how difficult it could be for the players to get past recent upheaval. The previous coach, Kris Ward, was fired late last season and barred from coaching in the NWSL indefinitely for what the league called “overly aggressive behavior and harassment.” Yet, when the players were publicly fighting their owner in 2021, they won the NWSL championship with a late-season surge where they only seemed to play better the more chaotic things got off the field. By comparison, in 2022 the Spirit won zero games on the road and lacked tenacity.
It may take some time for Parsons, Kang and Krikorian, who was brought in last season, to build the club that they want, and this season will be about proving that things are headed in the right direct — both on and off the field.
Player to watch: Trinity Rodman
Trinity Rodman, the right-wing who at times swaps to the left, is the face of the Spirit franchise right now, and the club made a big bet on her by signing her to a four-year contract — long by the NWSL’s standards — last season.
How well Rodman performs might be a good barometer of how well the Spirit are doing overall. Rodman’s four goals from 4.7 expected goals, or xG, in 18 games last season wasn’t enough — not when the Spirit signed her last season to a $1.1 million contract that her agency said made her the highest-paid player in the NWSL.
On the positive end, however, Rodman had the third-highest expected assists, or xA, in the league, per TruMedia. The fact that the Spirit finished the league with the 11th-worst shot-to-goal conversion rate might explain why her actual assists didn’t end up higher. But Rodman herself does need to put the ball back in the net more than her 7.8% conversion rate last year. In 2021, the year the Spirit won the NWSL championship, her conversion rate was closer to 9%, even though she took far fewer of her chances from inside the box.
With players like Ashley Sanchez, Ashley Hatch and Andi Sullivan around her, it may be more about the team clicking than anything else. But as Rodman fights for a World Cup spot with the USWNT in her third pro season, the time to step up is now. — Murray