Stories

Eleven players with points to prove this NWSL season

Photo Courtesy Houston Dash

The 2016 NWSL season is here. You should have already read our team-by-team previews. Now, we look at the players you might not know, but should.

We are part of The Trust Project What is it?

Kealia Ohai, Houston Dash

Point to prove: She can actually score goals

Perhaps no NWSL attacker is as undervalued by traditional statistics as Kealia Ohai. With eight goals in two years (42 appearances) in professional soccer, the former Tar Heel doesn’t seem worthy of her 40 career starts, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Because of Houston’s lack of options in attack, teams have been able to zero-in on Ohai, sometimes to the benefit of her teammates (the now departed Jessica McDonald scored seven times of the Dash last season). It hasn’t been exaggerated – Ohai hasn’t been double-marked! – but when teams plan for Dash forwards, they plan for Ohai.

To the extent that changes in 2016 may depend on the help she has around her. Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian are back, but like last year, they’ll be gone for a large chunk of the summer. This year, though, head coach Randy Waldrum will have a good long-range distributor, Amber Brooks, staying in midfield. He’ll have other goal threats in attack, such as former Arsenal forward Chioma Ubogago, and he’ll have two dangerous fullbacks: Canadian international Alyssha Champan and Brazlian Poliana. He’ll also have another year’s experience in a team that made progress in its second season.

On talent, intelligence and work rate, Ohai appears to be an obvious breakout candidate, but even labeling her as such undervalues what she’s already done. Numbers or not, Ohai has established herself as a threat among NWSL opposition. Whether that reputation translates into goals depends on how far the rest of her team has come.

Manon Melis, Seattle Reign

Point to prove: She can meet the Reign, NWSL challenge

Whether the NWSL is better than Europe’s best leagues is debatable, but everybody agrees it’s different, often for the most trite, stereotypical reasons. It is faster. It is more physical. A defending player is more likely to press than lay off. Your work rate will be as scrutinized much as your first touch.

For some, adjusting to a new league becomes impossible, but Melis seems like a perfect fit. Standing 5-foot-4, the Dutch international is set to occupy one of the wide positions in Laura Harvey’s 4-3-3, potentially joining midfielders Kim Little and Jessica Fishlock as short, all-energy, all-production stars Harvey’s plucked from Europe.

That energy is key. In a team defined by Little and Fishlock’s persistence, there’s no tolerance for letting up.  Names like Sydney Leroux and Kaylyn Kyle have come and gone partly because their games couldn’t match the ethos. Put up all the numbers you want before arriving at Memorial Stadium, but if your approach doesn’t match your new teammates’, you’re going to fail.

If preseason is any indication, Melis has the approach. She also has the track record: 142 goals in her last 147 Swedish league games tells of her talent. Now it’s a matter of matching talent and system.

Desiree Scott, FC Kansas City

Point to prove: The NWSL has not passed her by

When Desiree Scott left the NWSL in 2013, she was considered one of the best midfield destroyers in the league. Her departure for England’s Notts County after the league’s inaugural season was seen as a major blow to Vlatko Andonovski’s team, who had just come off a loss to eventual champion Portland in the semifinals. The team still had Jen Buczkowski in a deep-midfield spot, but how do you replace a player like Scott?

Perhaps you don’t have to. Though names like Yael Averbuch, Mandy Laddish and Jenna Richmond have patrolled similar spots on the field, few players profile like Scott, one of the women’s games true Claude Makeleles. At the same time, FC Kansas City went on to win two titles, relying on Buczkowski to anchor a midfield that was often overlooked between Lauren Holiday, on the attacking end, and Becky Sauerbrunn, in defense.

Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

The Destroyer is back. (Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports)

Buczkowski is likely leaving the team in June to pursue a career in physical therapy. Holiday is retired, as is fullback Leigh Ann Brown, while the team’s leading scorer, Amy Rodriguez, is pregnant with her family’s second child. Sauerbrunn is going to spend the summer in Brazil, and while stars like Heather O’Reilly, Erika Tymrak (wingers) and Nicole Barnhart (goalkeeper) should still be around, Scott’s return could prove crucial.

Andonovski is going to have to rethink how FC Kansas City can compete. If Scott is as destructive as she was in 2013, he has one fewer thing to worry about.

Lindsey Horan, Portland Thorns

Point to prove: Europe was the right choice

Horan was a highly-touted, University of North Carolina-bound attacker from Colorado four years ago when a surprise decision vaulted her into fan consciousness. Instead of joining coach Anson Dorrance at the NCAA powerhouse, Horan cashed in with a six-figure-per-annum deal at Paris Saint-Germain, joining a French club looking to establish itself as a European power. In a world where every prospect goes to college by default, Horan stood to start a revolution.

Four years later, the revolt’s never come. Top prospects still default to college, but for young national team hopefuls, Horan’s proved Europe need not be a detour. At 18 years old, she made her first appearance for the U.S. women’s national team. Now, just after her 21st birthday, the forward-midfielder is a regular national team call-up, with that positional hyphenate now the biggest question hovering over her career.

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Thorns

Lindsey Horan. (Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Thorns)

In Europe, Horan’s skill and intelligence produced 45 goals in 58 French league appearances as a forward. Internationally and in the NWSL, those skills are set to be deployed in midfield, where issues with speed are less likely to be tested by central defenders more apt to rely on athleticism.

Along with the change of league, Horan’s new position hints at a transition period, but if her quick assimilation into her national team role is any indication, Portland’s new creator could be the best asset acquired in the Alex Morgan deal.

Sarah Hagen, Orlando Pride

Point to prove: A change of scenery is all that’s needed

When Hagen came out of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2011, she was projected as Abby Wambach’s heir apparent – a strong, target striker that would be the tip of the U.S.’s spear once the American legend faded. But now, in the first year of the U.S.’s post-Wambach era, Hagen’s international career has stalled. What happened?

The early stages of her professional career were promising. In two-and-a-half seasons with Bayern Munich, Hagen scored 30 Frauen Bundesliga goals, projecting her as an impact player when she joined FC Kansas City ahead of the 2014 season. On two championship teams, “Apple” was never able to nail down a consistent starting role. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski tried going away from his preferred 4-3-2-1 setup, hoping Hagan could pair with Amy Rodriguez, but the 4-4-2 never worked.

With new life in Orlando, Hagan can prove 2011’s hopes aren’t 2016’s regrets. She gets another chance to pair with a star striker – this time, Alex Morgan – and with Tom Sermanni, she has a player’s coach looking to accommodate her style.

- Richard Farley