Analysis

Power players: These figures will define the 2018 NWSL season

ISI Photos-Howard C. Smith

From stars on the field, to those in charge off of it, the NWSL's sixth season features plenty of intriguing subplots.

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Crystal Dunn, North Carolina Courage forward

The gamble that Christen Press has made in holding out from the Houston Dash this preseason is, essentially, what Crystal Dunn did at the end of her tenure with the Washington Spirit. Although, the circumstances are not identical, Dunn essentially wanted to move on from the Spirit, even if she eventually had to move to Europe before doing so.

Now, after a year with Chelsea in England, the 2015 National Women's Soccer League MVP is back, with her gambit having produced a move that rekindled her career in the NWSL.

Dunn’s move to North Carolina, though, is about more than a player exercising some of her limited power. It’s also about the gamble an organization is willing to take to reach the next level.

Five months ago, the Courage were bested in the NWSL Championship game, ostensibly putting them on a rung below the Portland Thorns. To the extent there is a gap between those rungs, North Carolina is betting Dunn can traverse it, giving up two promising young players (Ashley Hatch and Taylor Smith) to do so.

For a team whose young core projected them as a perennial contender for the foreseeable future, it’s a significant risk, one that could backfire if Dunn fails to settle into her new club. Players of Dunn’s talent, though, are worth the gamble, and if she does come good this season, North Carolina will be in position to avenge last October’s loss.

Emily Sonnett, Portland Thorns defender

ISI Photos-Craigh Mitchelldyer

ISI Photos-Craigh Mitchelldyer

To the extent redemption was even necessary, Emily Sonnett’s quest began in the middle of last season, continued through the Thorns’ title-winning performance in October, and climaxed with her full return to the U.S. women’s national team this winter. Still only 24 years old, Sonnett has joined Lindsey Horan as the cornerstones of the Portland’s next core, the one that will eventually be expected to carry on from its current, Christine Sinclair-forged group.

The horizon for Sonnett is starting to transcend her future in Portland. Though North Carolina’s Abby Dahlkemper has begun to emerge as the U.S. women’s national team most-likely defender of the future, Sonnett’s late 2017 surge has restored her to that conversation, offering a player who, in so many ways, offers something different than the Courage star.

In time, the duo may prove a stalwart combination in the middle of the U.S. block, but over the course of 2018, Sonnett may ignite a debate as to who is Becky Sauerbrunn’s true heir apparent in the middle.

Bill Predmore, Seattle Reign owner/general manager

FourFourTwo has already documented why 2018 is so crucial for the Reign’s future, but credit where it’s due, Predmore is not resorting to half-measures.

After the departure of the only coach his franchise has even known, Laura Harvey, Seattle’s owner lured one the NWSL’s best bosses, former FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski. Following two straight seasons outside the playoffs, Predmore also overhauled his roster, bringing in four new internationals (Allie Long, United States; Jodie Taylor, England; Steph Catley; Australia; Theresa Nielsen, Denmark) to throw his team back into the conversation of playoff hopefuls.

It is, in a way, an all-in move, even if the Reign’s timeline is unclear. There is no make-or-break moment on the horizon for the NWSL in Seattle, but success in 2018 would certainly help. The more people coming to Reign games, the more long-term interest there is in the club, the more attractive the team looks for potential partners, and a post-Memorial Stadium home.

Whatever the timeline is on those scenarios, Predmore’s putting his team in the best position possible, now. And that position could see the Reign back in the playoffs.

Laura Harvey, Utah Royals FC head coach

Through the looking glass of Predmore’s reality is that of Utah boss Laura Harvey, who embarks on her second NWSL challenge after leaving the Reign this offseason.

Beloved by the Reign fanbase, Harvey had just endured two disappointing seasons under the Space Needle, taking talented squads to the edge of the postseason without breaking through. It was a noticeable step back from the levels Seattle achieved in 2014 and 2015, when the Reign won Shields – a step back that’s left many wondering if the league has caught up to Harvey’s approach.

To a certain extent, that would be a good thing, because it would mean everybody is creating the close-knit, player-friendly environments Harvey became renowned for in Seattle. That would only make the league a better place. On the other hand, though, if the rest of the league had truly unlocked Harvey’s stylistic and tactical approach, it would be time for a change of approach.

Evan Silverman, A&E Networks’ Executive VP of Global Digital Products

After year one, the point person for Lifetime’s broadcast had reason to be proud of his team’s new initiatives, having made NWSLSoccer.com into a legitimate content provider while, through the quality of the channel’s first broadcasts of NWSL game, silencing everyone who asked why the league was electing to hop in bed with a non-traditional sports partner.

Don’t expect that silence to last long, though. As league fans continue to demand progress from clubs, so too will they demand growth from the league’s partners, and with A&E Networks also a co-owner in the NWSL, the league’s most ardent support will continue to scrutinize how Silverman’s group is helping the league move forward.

It is a niche and nuanced criticism, evaluating those that are so far from the field, but in a league where coaches and ownership are under a constant microscope, it’s also one that makes sense. Can Lifetime’s broadcasts, as good as they were in year one, continue to grow the league in year two? Seemingly, the only way to grow the league is to continue to grow in the quality of the product.

Sam Kerr, Chicago Red Stars

Like North Carolina, Chicago is looking to reach another level -- only for Rory Dames’ Red Stars, that aspired level is actually reaching an NWSL final. For three years running, Chicago has qualified for the NWSL playoffs, the longest active streak of postseason appearances in the league. And, for three years running, Chicago has been eliminated in the league’s semifinals.

There’s no better way to change that than bringing in the league’s best player, and although the Red Stars had to give up Christen Press to do so, that’s a trade-off any team in the NWSL would make. From the uncomfortable position of electing to accommodate Press’ trade demands, Dames somehow landed the NWSL’s most enviable talent.

Even if Kerr wasn’t on the Red Stars, she would be the league’s most intriguing player, but now moving to the league’s biggest market (unless you consider Piscataway, New Jersey, part of New York -- and you shouldn’t), Kerr has a chance to see her star grow. That’s something that would be good for the team, good for the league, and, if it leads to a better team in October, a postseason breakthrough for the Red Stars.

Amanda Duffy, NWSL Managing Director

A year on from Jeff Plush’s surprise departure as commissioner, the NWSL still hasn’t filled that role; at least, the league doesn’t have a commissioner by name. Amanda Duffy, though, for all intents and purposes, is the league’s head honcho, putting her at the top of a league that’s poised for a year of transition.

The folding of the Boston Breakers on the heels of FC Kansas City’s relocation to Utah sparked a new round of doubts about the league. It’s also seeded a new round of speculation regarding expansion, with long-held rumors around potential Los Angeles and Vancouver clubs reaching a new amplitude. With the challenges of the heights of the World Cup cycle quickly approaching, the league is reaching yet another pivotal moment.

Commissioner or not, Duffy is going to be at the forefront of those issues, with the discussion around them invariably hitting on why, after all this time, she hasn’t been giving the top job. Even if the NWSL has a strong owner presence, one which has picked up some of Plush’s leftover tasks, Duffy deserves to have a new title.

Jill Ellis, U.S. women’s national team head coach

One of the issues clubs are already worried about with the coming World Cup is how much, still one year out, players will be asked to shift focus from their clubs.

The worries began at the end of last season, when coaches began openly talking about how U.S. players are likely to be called in to camps earlier and earlier. Such is the prerogative for a federation that has substantially subsidized the NWSL, but the potential effects on the league’s season are obvious. If U.S. players are being brought in, say, a week earlier, having more demands made of them, and return to their clubs more injured and fatigued than before, the teams most reliant on U.S. talent are going to suffer.

That’s why Jill Ellis is such a compelling figure. If she feels the team needs a week of training before this summer’s tournament of nations, it’s possible a team’s best players could miss more time than expected before (via the call-up) and after (via the recovery) the windows. And a league as small as the NWSL, where seven of nine teams have legitimate playoff hopes, that could be enough to send a playoff hopeful into an early offseason.

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