Who will be your NWSL team's star player at the 2019 World Cup?
World Cup qualifying puts 2018 back at the forefront of many mind, but, reminder: There’s more than one senior-level World Cup. For many, the year 2019 is just as important as 2018, if not more so.
That’s when the U.S. women’s national team will likely take to France to defend the world title it claimed two years ago. If that team was formed now, names like Sauerbrunn, Lloyd, and Press would be among the best representing their NWSL clubs. And beyond U.S. players, legends like Sinclair and Marta would be the most noteworthy representing teams in Portland and Orlando.
But will those players still be their teams’ best come 2019? It’s impossible to know right now, but we do know aging is a thing, and for certain players, it’s tempting to speculate when, exactly, they’ll hit their peak, or how likely they are to add more skills to their arsenals.
“Speculate” is the key word here, though, so we’ll keep it short. By team, here’s who we see as the NWSL’s best come the next Women’s World Cup.
Thank you, alphabet, for giving us an easy start. At 22 years old, Rose Lavelle is already Boston’s best player, having claimed April’s Player of the Month honor. Lavelle just turned pro, and she has the potential, come 2019, to be one of the most creative players in the world.
Chicago Red Stars
Like Lavelle, Christen Press is currently her club team’s best player. Come France, she’ll still only be 29 years. By that time, we may finally have an answer to one of the national team’s lingering riddles: Why isn’t Christen Press getting more starts from Jill Ellis?
FC Kansas City
It’s tempting to see Becky Sauerbrunn’s age, Christina Gibbons’ quality in her first seven professional games, and wonder how much the Duke grad can close the gap before France. But right now, Sauerbrunn is still one of the best defenders in the world. Even if Gibbons meets her potential, Sauerbrunn would need to have quite the falloff to let Gibbons catch up over the next 25 months.
No doubt, Carli Lloyd deserves this honor now, but two more years out of her prime, and two more into Morgan Brian’s, makes for our first real debate. But what about Houston captain Kealia Ohai, or our first legitimate international option, Australian goalkeeper Lydia Williams?
Some other factors make this choice even more difficult. Williams is the player least likely to actually be playing in the NWSL in two years, yet she’s also the player most likely to have a major role for her national team in France. If Lloyd is still on top of her game, or if Brian takes the next step in her career, Australia’s No. 1 could be outshined by her would-be Dash teammates, but there are enough questions around both scenarios to make Lydia Williams, an often overshadowed player in Houston, the more likely star in France.
North Carolina Courage
As entertaining as it’s been to watch Lynn Williams’ three games – and as intimidating as her play should be for opposing defenders – Sam Mewis may develop into a transcendent player. Her combination of skill, size, strength and intelligence is unmatched in the U.S. player pool, regardless of position. Already an impact player at club level, she could be an enviable international talent when the U.S. defends its crown.
Start your, “I can’t take any article seriously …” tweet with this section, because against my better judgment -- against a career arc that’s had little bend, as well as a health history that hints at few potential troubles – I’m not picking Marta.
Instead, we need to remember that Australian left back Steph Catley is still only 23 years old, has come through a couple of injury-filled seasons and, already with 57 international appearances under her belt, can yet have a Dani Alves, Marcelo-like effect on women’s soccer. A good run of health should do wonders for her growth.
All hail Tobin Heath, who may be the U.S.’ best player right now, but the Thorns star who’ll see the most growth in the next two years is Lindsey Horan. She already had the most range to her distribution of anyone in the player pool, and with two more years to complete a transition from French-league striker to NWSL midfielder, Horan could return to France as one of the top two midfielders at Jill Ellis’ disposal.
Given the age and international status of players in Seattle’s core, it’s possible one of the NWSL’s most talented teams will be without an impact player at the 2019 World Cup. Players like Jessica Fishlock and Rachel Corsie may not qualify with their countries, and Nahomi Kawasumi and Bev Yanez are not playing with their nations’ squads. Meanwhile, Megan Rapinoe is battling both aging and an emerging crowd at her position under Ellis.
Rumi Utsugi, however, is still being called into Japan’s squad, and by the time the Nadeshiko land in France, she’ll still only be 29 years old. Plus, if this year’s NWSL form is any indication, the defensive midfielder should enter the tournament as one of the most disruptive presences in the world.
Though the Reign have a lot of options – and who knows who Laura Harvey is apt to go out and get – Utsugi is the player most likely, right now.
Sky Blue FC
No disrespect to Raquel Rodriguez or Kelley O’Hara, but if you’ve watched Sky Blue at all this season, there is no doubt who should be the team’s standout in 2019. Just named NWSL Player of the Month for May, 23-year-old Sam Kerr could be seen as one of the world’s best players come France. Already dominant in at club level, the reigning best player in Australia’s W-League could be tournament-defining player two years from now.
Indulge my contrarianism, but a 19-year-old who has played less than two full games of professional soccer still carries plenty of doubts. If Mallory Pugh can cast those aside, she still has a loaded U.S. women’s player pool to fight through. It’s possible Pugh will explode and make my caution look foolish, but it’s also possible she’ll still be a step behind, say, Tobin Heath and Rose Lavelle out wide, or Christen Press and Lynn Williams up top come the next World Cup.
I also want to go out of my way to highlight Shelina Zadorsky, a 24-year-old Canadian international who, while her team has struggled to prevent goals, has stood out in Washington’s central defense. Along with Lyon’s Kadeisha Buchanan, the former Michigan Wolverine looks likely to start for John Herdman come 2019, and if her progress continues, we could be talking about an all-league-level talent two years from now.
Amid Washington’s struggles, few have picked out Zadorsky’s contribution. It would be a shame if we waited until 2019 to take notice.
Richard Farley is the deputy editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.