X-Factors: 5 key players who could decide the NWSL title race

ISI Photos-Daniel Bartel

Who will fuel a push for NWSL trophies this summer? Richard Farley picks some suspects.

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Nine weeks into the NWSL season, teams’ strengths and weaknesses have been laid bare, and opponents are starting to adjust.

For teams at the top of the table, overcoming those adjustments could come down to the performance of one or two stars.

Striker not scoring? You may be sunk. New midfielder starts clicking in the system? Your team’s game may find new levels.

With this year’s playoff race looking deeper than expected, more players will have a chance to sway the invites to the postseason.

Here are five whose summers could prove the most crucial:

Sydney Leroux, Forward, FC Kansas City Bartel Bartel

FC Kansas City is coming off a 2016 where playoff dreams carried by one of the league’s best defenses fell short, unable to overcome an attack that couldn’t score goals.

One year later, the narrative persists. Only instead of second-year forward Shea Groom trying to fill an injured Amy Rodriguez’s boots, it’s U.S. women’s national team star Sydney Leroux that’s tasked with being Kansas City’s arrowhead.

We’ve talked about Leroux before, in reference to her recent recall to the women’s national team. Two weeks later, the story remains the same. Leroux is ably trying to come back from nearly two years of inactivity, but two strong performances through the season’s first nine matches show a player who has yet to find her stride.

Given Leroux’s long layoff, that’s perfectly understandable. Unfortunately, FCKC’s season can’t wait. If the Blues are going to make the playoffs, they may need a striker who can at least threaten a double-digit goal rate. 

With only one such season under her belt (2013, with Boston), Leroux hasn’t been that player since long before her time off.

Christine Nairn, Midfielder, Seattle Reign

Originally drafted by Seattle four years ago, Nairn left Reign FC after the 2013 season and established herself in Washington. When Seattle gave up three draft picks and Havana Solaun for her this offseason, the former Penn State standout returned as one of the most underappreciated midfielders in the league.

Replacing a departing former MVP, Kim Little, was always going to a big ask. But Nairn’s ability to connect play deeper on the field could possibly liberate Jessica Fishlock, a No. 8 who could be more influential in the final third.

It was a great theory. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out. Nairn’s played the No. 6 rolefor one game, has largely been the Reign’s highest midfielder, but has occasionally moved back into a connecting role. None of it’s mattered. Early in her return to Seattle, Christine Nairn hasn’t found the right role.

This weekend, Nairn was out of Seattle’s starting XI despite the injury absence of Rumi Utsugi, another of Laura Harvey’s starting midfielders. Instead, Lindsey Elston was moved into the XI, with Bev Yanez falling back from forward to midfield.

If Harvey feels Nairn isn’t part of her best XI, that also means the potential we saw in Seattle this preseason – a team with a potentially stellar midfield that could fuel a contender – may never emerge. And that should affect how we see the rest of this season playing out.

Sofia Huerta, Forward, Chicago Red Stars

To the eye, Huerta’s permanent move to a striker’s role has made the Chicago Red Stars a more dangerous team, with her versatility allowing her to hold a defense while Christen Press threatens from all angles.

In practice – at least, recent practice – Chicago seems to be falling into some old, bad habits, with the team needing late goals to earn 1-1 draws against visiting Boston and Washington.

At home, those are teams the Red Stars should be taking full points from, yet Chicago still struggles to find enough goals to play to its talent level. That’s where Huerta can help. With 13 goals over the previous two seasons, Huerta has proven she can score.

Yet with only one goal in 749 minutes this season, the 24-year-old attacker’s all-around game hasn’t translated to the scoresheet.

Chicago has always pushed back against the idea that Huerta’s production falls with Press on the field, and seeing how their team plays, there’s nothing keeping one from getting the best out of the other. 

But if the Red Stars are going to be a team that avoids those close, just couldn’t quite score enough results that held them back last season, Huerta needs to score goals. She’s certainly done so before.

Sam Kerr, Forward, Sky Blue FC Smith Smith

Coming into the season, Sky Blue was expected to build on its slight 2016 revival, yet few saw the team as a true playoff contender. With three rookies starting in its back five, the team still seemed too young, especially if playoffs meant besting more established teams, like Kansas City and Seattle.

Ten games into the year, though (with SBFC having played an extra game), it’s clear Sky Blue has something those other playoff aspirants don’t: A world-class, game-breaking talent in attack. And for those who still didn’t believe Sam Kerr’s at that level, last Saturday’s performance should shut them up.

Visiting Providence Park, facing a Portland defense that’s thought of as one of the league’s two best, the Australian international almost single-handedly tore the Thorns apart. Creating a goal in the 24th second, Kerr helped build a lead Sky Blue would never relinquish. Two late second-half goals, largely solo efforts, helped Kerr deliver an upset few could have foreseen.

For her efforts, Kerr won NWSL Player of the Week, a just reward for a night that doubled her season goal total. Her threat, though, has been omnipresent, and it is part of the reason why, despite getting little attacking production from its wide positions, Sky Blue is contending for a playoff spot. 

If Kerr continues performing at this level, there’s no reason why that contention can’t last through Week 24.

Tobin Heath, Midfielder, Portland Thorns

USA TODAY Sports-Kyle Terada

USA TODAY Sports-Kyle Terada

The Portland Thorns are capable of competing without Tobin Heath, whose back injury has kept her off the field the entire season. The platonic ideal of this team, however, has Heath playing a key part – a role may be the difference between a mere contender and a favorite to claim the NWSL title.

Such is the state of a team with Christine Sinclair, Lindsey Horan, Amandine Henry and Allie Long, and that doesn’t even include a defense that allowed the fewest goals during the 2016 season. Heath’s absence may be dearly felt, but Portland can survive without her. Even if she doesn’t play, it would be a shock to see the Thorns finish outside the top four.

There is still only one Tobin Heath, though. Now on the 45-day disabled list, Heath is not eligible to return until late July, with her recovery now taking a far more cautious course. Should she return then, she’ll have plenty of time to get up to speed before the playoffs.

If not, Portland’s title hopes, while still alive, would suffer a significant blow.

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Richard Farley is the deputy editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.