FFT's 2016 NWSL preview
Stadium: Jordan Field (2015 avg. attendance: 2,863)
2015 finish: 4-13-3, 15 pts.; 9th place (last)
The Boston Breakers name is the most history-rich remaining in professional women’s soccer in the U.S., the only name still standing from the days of the WUSA. The Washington Freedom used to hold that illustrious title after transitioning into a dominant pro-am side once the WUSA folded in 2003, but the Freedom name disappeared into the night in tragic fashion when they were sold to the late Dan Borislow, moved to Florida and became named after internet telephone company magicJack in late 2010. The Atlanta Beat name also came and went twice, first in the WUSA and then in WPS.
So the Breakers mark, once adorned by the likes of legends Kristine Lilly, Angela Hucles and Maren Meinert, makes its way into 2016. Although the club was dormant from late 2003 until the resurrection of professional women’s soccer in the U.S. in 2009, the Breakers were one of three teams to remain active at the semi-pro level in 2012, between the end of WPS and the start of the NWSL.
But gone are the glory days in Boston. The Breakers are the only club of the original eight in NWSL to not make the playoffs in the league’s first three seasons, and they have shown few signs of even being competitive over the past two years. The team’s off-field makeover remains a work in progress after moving out of the cavernous – even if charming – Harvard Stadium and across the parking lot to the 4,000-seat Jordan Field, home of Harvard soccer and, from April to September, Breakers soccer. It’s a cozier home which the club hopes can create demand for the product (and be more pleasing on the eyes – it’s still turf, but it isn’t clouded with American football lines). First, the product must create demand.
Matt Beard enters his first season as Breakers head coach knowing the only way to go is up. Beard signed on in Beantown after three seasons in charge of Liverpool in England’s FAWSL. He led Liverpool to two league titles in his first two seasons in charge, dramatically and stunningly scripting a tale which English fans are seeing on a more high-profile level in the Premier League this season: worst to first. (Of course, Leicester City wasn’t worst last year or the Foxes would have been relegated; Liverpool’s last-place finish in the FAWSL in 2012 predated promotion and relegation, now also in place on the women’s side.)
Beard has helped assemble a team which has a couple of key pieces from his Liverpool days. Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who seems to have the inside track on the No. 2 position for the U.S. at the Rio Olympics, was traded to the Chicago Red Stars in the offseason for U.S. international defender Whitney Engen – a stalwart in Liverpool in 2013 – to bolster the league’s worst back line. Libby Stout, another former winner at Liverpool, was brought in to replace Naeher in net. More riskily, Beard signed Louise Schillgard, a Swedish midfielder who won the 2013 title with Liverpool but didn’t even play in 2015. This all leads to the big talking point in Boston…
The big question
Can Beard replicate success in the NWSL? Let’s be clear about a couple of things: The Breakers aren’t going from worst to first. As much as Seattle Reign FC went from second-bottom in 2013 to NWSL Shield winners in 2014, such a jump isn’t realistic in the competitive NWSL without the significant investment and overhaul like the one Seattle made, bringing in several stars including Scottish midfielder Kim Little, the 2014 NWSL MVP and one of the best players in the world.
Secondly, the FAWSL isn’t the NWSL. The two growing leagues at times look and feel very similar – both trying to set the bar as a top league, with some teams backed by big-name men’s clubs – but the NWSL is considered the deepest league in the world from top to bottom. Beard will need time implement change, and he may well need a full season and another off-season to make Boston truly competitive.
Player to watch: Kristie Mewis
The maturation of Mewis was evident at times throughout the 2015 season as the once U.S. international, still only 25 years old, settled into her role in Boston. But the Breakers continue to wait for their locally-grown star to put in a full-season worth of game-changing work. Boston gave up a considerable amount for Mewis when they traded for her in late 2013, expecting to build around her.
But Mewis soon fell out of the U.S. national team picture as her younger sister, Sam, entered the scene, and she hasn’t been called-up in over a year. She spent part of the 2014-15 offseason in Japan to push herself and mature, and she played for Frauen-Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich this winter. Boston has failed to piece together a supporting cast around Mewis over the past two years, but Stephanie McCaffrey continues to look like one of the more promising young players in the league and the addition of Engen and midfielders McCall Zerboni and Sinead Farrelly should provide a more solid foundation than before. Mewis is capable of the spectacular, but it often comes and goes in waves. Consistency in 2016 could see Mewis lead progress, even if not prominence, in Boston.
It’s unlikely that the Breakers will compete for a playoff spot, but this is the first year since 2013 which they aren’t being universally viewed as the favorite to finish in last place. So...there's that. Beard should provide leadership at the top, which the club lacked over the past two years. Engen’s addition fills a massive hole – even if she may miss time for Olympics preparation – and the loss of fan-favorite Naeher is a blow softened by the arrival of both Engen and Stout; the Breakers needed help on the field more than anything.
Look for Boston to be more competitive than last year, but the Breakers are going to need time to jell and they are still several pieces from being competitive.
- Jeff Kassouf