The National Women’s Soccer League will enter its fourth season this weekend, a feat that the previous two professional women’s soccer leagues in the U.S. never achieved. The games begin amid controversy over U.S. women’s national team player salaries and will be disrupted by a mid-season Olympic break. But there are some bright spots too — a salary cap increase and the addition of a 10th franchise, the Orlando Pride, which is trying to break the NWSL attendance record with its home opener against Houston.
And for the first time, FiveThirtyEight is forecasting a women’s professional league — complete with offensive and defensive ratings, projected wins, losses and ties, and the chances of each team reaching the playoffs and beyond. To perhaps no one’s surprise, our predictions feature two clear leaders — Seattle Reign FC and FC Kansas City — atop a cluster of teams in the middle (six teams are within 2 points of another team). Below are our initial ratings for the 2016 season:
|RATING||AVG. SIM. SEASON||PLAYOFF CHANCES|
|W. New York||96.7||100.1||92.4||7.1||7.8||5.1||34||13||5|
Now for the gory details: The model we’re using for our NWSL forecast is similar to the one we used during the Women’s World Cup, but it’s built using data from the three NWSL seasons — not the most robust, we know, but it’s what’s available — as well as results from NCAA games between top teams to inform some decisions.
Each team has an overall rating made up of its offensive and defensive components. The initial 2016 team ratings are the ones from the end of the 2015 season reverted to the mean by one-third. After each match, a team’s rating will change relative to its expected performance; that is, a strong team could win against a weak team, but if the win wasn’t convincing enough, the team’s rating could decrease.1 Because the Orlando Pride are a new team, we start them with a below-average rating (just like how we handle new franchises in our historical Elo ratings for other sports), and if it turns out that they’re significantly better or worse than this rating, the forecast will adjust quickly.
Our model, unfortunately, doesn’t yet use any player ratings — there’s not much good player-level data available. So we wanted to take a look at each team’s personnel strengths and shortcomings, and weigh in on which teams will be most affected by players who will be heading to the Olympics and missing some games — something our model can’t do. It’s not a perfect model, but it’s a good start. And we’ll be fine-tuning it as the season goes on.
Seattle Reign FC
Seattle has been the best regular-season team in the NWSL for the past two years, earning the most regular-season points each year, but didn’t bring home a title in either. Going into 2016, Seattle is our highest-rated team and has the greatest chance of winning the championship game (31 percent) — thanks in part to the return of two of the league’s best players, Kim Little and Jess Fishlock.
The midfield duo locked up a W-League championship in Australia together in the offseason and combine to give the Reign the strongest offensive rating in the league (117.3) — 6 points clear of any other team. Added bonus: Neither of their respective national teams (Scotland and Wales) qualified for the Olympics. Sore spots for the Reign are the retirement of Steph Cox, a staple in the backline for the past two seasons, and the possible absence of outside midfielder Megan Rapinoe because of an ACL injury.
FC Kansas City
The back-to-back champions might feel slighted by their second-place ranking, but personnel changes mean this team is going to look a little different this year. Two national team attackers won’t be around — Lauren Holiday retired, and Amy Rodriguez is pregnant. Sydney Leroux, who was signed in the offseason, will also miss most of the season due to pregnancy. The defense went through an overhaul too, and Kansas City will be looking to fill holes left by the retirement of two veterans, Amy LePeilbet and Leigh Ann Brown. However, Becky Sauerbrunn, the league’s defender of the year in 2015, returns to give FCKC the league’s highest defensive rating (115.7).
Chicago Red Stars
The Red Stars were a surprise in 2015 after back-to-back mediocre seasons, earning their first playoff berth last season before a resounding 3-0 loss to FCKC in the semifinals. Aside from Lori Chalupny, most of the Red Stars’ core players returned this season, including national team forward Christen Press, who tallied 10 goals in just 12 games last season. (Disclaimer: Press is a friend.)
Danielle Colaprico, the league’s 2015 rookie of the year, received her first national team call-up this winter and should be a bright spot in the midfield behind Jen Hoy and Sofia Huerta, two pacey forwards that can be very dangerous up top when they’re not struggling to adjust to Press’s style of play. The offseason addition of goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, the likely backup keeper for the national team, will further strengthen a solid Red Stars defense anchored by Julie Johnston.
Our model has the Spirit barely edging out the Portland Thorns for the final playoff spot this season, with a slightly higher overall rating that is mostly the result of league-MVP Crystal Dunn’s season-record 15 goals last year. The model gives the Spirit an offensive rating that is even stronger than that of the Red Stars, but the team will have to rely less on Dunn this year because she’ll likely be a part of the U.S. Olympic roster. The Spirit lost head coach Mark Parsons to the Thorns and starting goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris to Orlando. Parsons has been replaced by Jim Gabarra, who won just five games with the Sky Blue last season, and Harris will be replaced by Canadian national team keeper Stephanie Labbé.
The league-darling Thorns have a lackluster 2015 finish to thank for their lowish 2016 initial rating. The team lost three of its final four games and failed to make the playoffs for the first time. They probably should be rated higher this year after snagging the No. 1 draft pick, former University of Virginia defender Emily Sonnett, and making arguably the biggest international signing in the NWSL to date, French midfielder Amandine Henry.
The Thorns roster is stacked again, but the Olympics are going to hurt this team. Lindsey Horan, Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath and Meghan Klingenberg will all be gone for much of the summer. And even Allie Long is back dabbling with the national team, meaning that the Thorns could lose some of their usual non-national-team-player firepower too.
Sky Blue FC
A sixth-place rating for New Jersey’s Sky Blue might be a bit optimistic for a team whose most notable players include a 40-year-old defender recovering from knee surgery (Christie Rampone) and a 32-year-old relic of Sky Blue’s 2009 championship team (Natasha Kai, back after a five-year hiatus from professional soccer). Nonetheless, the team’s initial 2016 rating is bolstered by its strong finish last year — the Sky Blue beat Portland and tied Seattle late in the season (although they did not make the playoffs) — along with a tendency to play better against stronger teams — they posted some of their biggest wins on the road last year. The team has strength on offense in outside-back-turned-NWSL-forward Kelley O’Hara (Disclaimer: another friend), Australian international Sam Kerr and the No. 2 draft pick, Costa Rica’s Raquel Rodriguez — but the Sky Blue lost goalkeeper Brittany Cameron, whose 87 saves last year led the league.
Western New York Flash
With 11 new players this year, the Flash look like a completely different team from last season’s. That’s probably a good thing — the team finished with the second-worst goal differential in 2015. The roster has four federation players — two Canadian and two American — along with five international players, including Colombia’s maligned Lady Andrade and New Zealand team captain Abby Erceg. The Flash also picked up the discarded Thorns head coach Paul Riley.
Two less-than-great seasons into the Dash’s existence, any residual sympathy for the expansion team will dry up for good this season with the addition of Orlando. Our model gives the Dash a 25 percent chance of making the playoffs; the team finished last season just outside of playoff contention, in fifth place, after ending the previous year dead-last. Houston has the solid midfield of Morgan Brian, Carli Lloyd and now Amber Brooks, but defender Meghan Klingenberg was traded in the offseason — a move that, combined with an outstanding hole in central defense, could bring down the team’s defensive rating of 100.4.
From a fan perspective, the newest addition to the NWSL looks exciting, but beyond Alex Morgan, who is injured but had been off to a great 2016 with the U.S. national team, there aren’t many players on this team to get really excited about. English forward Lianne Sanderson hardly played at last summer’s World Cup, midfielder Becky Edwards has dipped in and out of national team favor and bounced around NWSL teams, and goalkeeper Harris looks like she’s moved into the third spot on the USWNT. The team’s automated expansion-team rating of 92.3 might seem lower than expected, but then again, the Olympics are going to strip this team of half a dozen of its best players.
That the Boston Breakers are projected to be at the bottom of the pack will not surprise anyone who’s followed the club. It won only four of 20 games last season and six out of 24 in 2014; the team broke even in 2013 (eight wins and eight losses) after firing its coach midseason and opting for a player-coach. The Breakers picked up much-needed defender Whitney Engen (the Breakers allowed 43 goals last season; the regular-season league average was 28) and added two solid non-national-team players to the midfield, Sinead Farrelly and McCall Zerboni. There still isn’t a ton of talent up top, but both Stephanie McCaffrey and Kristie Mewis can score goals if Boston isn’t spending entire games defending.