FC Kansas City hosts the opening match of the NWSL’s inaugural season on Saturday when the star-laden Thorns FC visit Shawnee Mission North High School Stadium. The 8:35 p.m. ET kickoff, which will be streamed on YouTube, is the first PST NWSL Game of the Week.
Three things you need to know
1. Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan may as well be Lebron James and Dwyane Wade
The Miami Heat may not win the NBA title every year, but they’re going to be the favorites. Sure, a team like the Dallas Mavericks can upset them, but when they do, expect a lot of people to ask what went wrong. With Lebron James and Dwyane Wade, the Heat not only have two of the NBA’s singularly brilliant talents, they have two unselfish players who complement each other exquisitely – the reason why they’ll be title favorites for the next three years.
Now if you can forgive the patronizing metaphor, the NWSL have their own Miami Heat. In Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan, Portland Thorns FC — the Paulson family’s sister organization to Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers — may have the two best players in the league. Canada’s captain and the U.S.’s main goal scorer form as good an attacking tandem as you could imagine, a partnership whose members perfectly complement each other. In general, Morgan will push the line and threaten in more advanced areas while Sinclair drops into space to take the ball from midfield, often turning to try and craft a final ball.
“Having two players of that caliber on a team, you find that happen on all professional levels,” FC Kansas City defender Becky Sauerbrunn said when asked about the potential competitive issues of allocating Sinclair and Morgan to the same team. “Our backline has been working on playing against players who are athletic and quick and good at finishing.
“We just have to train the way you want to play. We’ve trained against boys, and we talk tactically about how you want to play defensively. I think [Portland’s strikers are just] something you have to deal with.”
Both Morgan and “Sinc” will score goals. They’ll also get their far share of assists, though we can’t take it for granted they’ll duplicate the Heat’s success. While some tandems end up being Dwyane and Lebron, others end up being Kobe and Dwight. This may be one time Merritt Paulson won’t his team compared with the Lakers.
2. Expect mistakes
Over the last 10 days, U.S. and Canadian internationals have barely been with their teams. Canadians returned to practice on Tuesday, while the U.S.’s stars just returned to training on Thursday. Over four weeks of NWSL preseason, top internationals were only with their teams for eight-to-ten days.
In this league, that’s huge. With exception of one or two teams, the four-to-five U.S. and Canadian internationals allocated to each team form the cornerstones of each club’s lineup. Thanks to various international commitments that pulled stars away from their clubs though preseason, coaches will spend the season’s first weeks trying to fit their best players into systems formed from speculation: What will my best team when I actually get all my players?
Portland head coach Cindy Parlow Cone:
“There [are] going to be some mishaps and some miscommunications. There’s no way around [the mistakes] because we been playing together for four weeks, not six months, which is what you’d like to have for a preseason.
But every team’s in the same situation. [Kansas City are] just getting their national team players back. We’ve got to over-communicate everything and be ready for anything.”
Sinclair was more blunt in her assessment: “There are going to be some things that go so wrong, it’s not even funny.”
3. One versus two
If there was an Associated Press, college sports-style poll of soccer writers before the season, Portland would be the preseason number one. They’d get about 75 percent of the vote while a handful of skeptics would look at Kansas City’s less star-struck, more well-rounded squad and cast their vote with the Blues.
And as with any poll for a sport that has a playoff, the rankings wouldn’t mean a thing. They would, however, provide some context for Saturday’s opener, a matchup that could very well be repeated in Aug. 31’s final.
What makes Saturday’s game so interesting are not just the talents but how they match up. With one of the best spines in the league, Kansas City is particularly threatening to Portland is through the middle, a problem considering how narrow Parlow Cone looks to be setting up her team. Against the University of Portland, she used a 4-4-2/4-1-3-2 formation with its wide midfielders pulled in.
That could play to the strengths of a team that may feature Cheney (pictured), Mewis, Canadian destroyer Desiree Scott, talented attacker Casey Loyd, and all-arounder Sinead Farrelly in midfield.
Quick hits – Kansas City
Star to Watch: Lauren Cheney is FCKC’s best player. The question is where Vlatko Andonovski will use her. It looks like Andonovski plans to leverage her versatility, moving her between the midfield role she plays with the national team and her natural striker’s position.
Still important: Desiree Scott will be tasked with cutting off access Sinclair and Morgan. Here’s Sinclair’s scouting report on her Canada teammate:
“Des is a player on the national team that has really come into her own over the last two years. Our coach sort of threw her in to defensive mid one game, and I think she’s started every game there since. I think of her in the Olympics and she was just incredible and did so much for our team.
She’s a difficult player to play against. She’s quick. She’s feisty. She always seems to be in the right spots. As a holding midfielder her job is to cut off the supply into Alex and I. Hopefully she doesn’t do too good of a job at that this weekend.”
Wins if ,.. They win the midfield battle and can take advantage of a Portland central defense likely to feature tryout success Emilee O’Neil next to her former Stanford teammate (Buehler).
Quick hits – Portland
Star to Watch: Christine Sinclair may need to be the game-breaker, especially with the former Portland Pilot having two more days at practice than Morgan.
Still important: Angie Kerr will be the most attacking of Portland’s four midfielders and the player whose relationship with Sinclair will be most important. If Scott puts in a strong performance, Kerr’s presence in the space in front of the defense could help tilt the battle back in Portland’s favor.
Wins if … Sinclair or Morgan have a big day. That will be true most days this season, but in Kansas City, that may be all Thorns FC have. This is going to be one of their toughest tests of the year.
Other Games, Week 1
Sunday, 5 p.m. Eastern – Chicago Red Stars vs. Seattle Reign – Two midfield-heavy teams with potential problems in attack, this could end up 0-0 if Seattle’s midfield can protect their defense. Laura Harvey would take that result. (Link to stream.)
Sunday, 6 p.m. Eastern – Sky Blue FC vs. Western New York Flash – Abby Wambach and her home town team go to New Jersey to face Sky Blue, a team hoping U.S. national team defender Kelley O’Hara still has the attacker’s instincts she showed before her conversion to left back. If O’Hara and Lisa De Vanna have good days, Sky Blue wins. (Link to stream.)
Sunday, 6 p.m. Eastern – Boston Breakers vs. Washington Spirit – Boston’s all attack with problems in defense. Washington’s the opposite: Strong at the back with questions going forward. Boston’s the safe bet here, but if Stephanie Ochs can capitalize on the promise she showed coming out of San Diego two years ago, the Spirit could surprise their hosts. (Link to pay stream.)
More NWSL previews: