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Re-seeding the NWSL during the Olympic period

Washington's Ashley Sanchez dribbles the ball out of the midfield against Orlando. (Jeremy Reper/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

As any NWSL coach will tell you, the way to succeed in an Olympic year is to approach the season as a set of distinct and separate segments. In 2021, the league has already maneuvered through a Challenge Cup and the first quarter of the regular season. Now, a new challenge begins as teams re-assemble and solidify their squads without their Tokyo-bound stars.

We’ve covered our weekly power rankings, but with the league wasting no time in continuing on during the Olympics, let’s take a look at how we think each team is set up to weather this particular storm and build momentum as the season’s halfway mark approaches.

1. Washington Spirit

Current NWSL standing: 4th
Will lose: Kelley O’Hara (USA), Emily Sonnett (USA), Saori Takarada (JPN), Julia Roddar (SWE)

The Spirit will be missing some high-profile pieces on their backline, but Andi Sullivan’s Olympic heartbreak must be considered a massive Washington gain going into this portion of the season. Sullivan and Tori Huster have been the veteran heartbeat of this group — as Kelley O’Hara has had some limited availability — and they will be more than capable of guiding the team. The Spirit also benefit from a young core of players who are still rising to their full potential, and the duo of Ashley Sanchez and Trinity Rodman have the ability to set the NWSL on fire with other teams missing defenders.

Washington will miss Emily Sonnett and O’Hara, but Sullivan can take on deep-lying playmaker responsibilities with relative ease. The anticipated return of Paige Nielsen will also bolster the defense sufficiently. The Spirit have done an admirable job recently of getting results by sticking to their game plan and not forcing stylistic dogma onto a roster with some gaps. I expect that to continue.

2. Portland Thorns

Current NWSL standing: 3rd
Will lose: Christine Sinclair (CAN), Crystal Dunn (USA), Lindsey Horan (USA), Becky Sauerbrunn (USA), AD Franch (USA)

The Thorns are losing a number of key players to the Olympics, as the club deals with the consequences of fielding such a stacked roster. The good news for Portland is that their depth is finely tuned and none of those missing players are coming from their attacking line. Expect Kelli Hubly to slot in place of Becky Sauerbrunn, for Meghan Klingenberg to drift into the midfield on occasion and for the top-line options of Simone Charley, Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver to pounce on depleted backlines throughout the league.

The reason Portland gets the second slot here is simply because they ran this very exercise in the 2021 Challenge Cup and emerged as the victors. Plus, Portland’s goalkeeping system is as good as any in the NWSL. If any team can find a way through this period with a record that many teams will envy, Portland will — despite dropping some results early this year.

3. OL Reign

Current NWSL standing: 9th
Will lose: Megan Rapinoe (USA), Rose Lavelle (USA), Quinn (CAN), Nicole Momiki (JPN)

When I first put together this re-seeding idea, it was with the intention of placing OL Reign firmly at the top of the list. They have reloaded their attack with the inclusion of Eugenie Le Sommer and Dzsenifer Marozsan and bolstered their defense with the acquisition of Alana Cook, none of whom will be out during the Olympics. They also have Shirley Cruz and Jess Fishlock as steady midfield contributors who will be available to them at a time when many other clubs are losing players of a similar caliber.

However, while talent will likely still win out in OL Reign’s favor, their 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Gotham FC this past weekend has given me some pause. Le Sommer and Marozsan each found themselves in dangerous spaces during the game, but the different pace of the NWSL caught many of the Reign’s new additions (including Sarah Bouhaddi) off guard. These issues are solvable, but the Reign will have to get more out of their attack and a much steadier performance from their defense in order to earn the points they’re expecting in the short term.

4. Orlando Pride

Current NWSL standing: 1st
Will lose: Alex Morgan (USA), Marta (BRA), Erin McLoed (CAN), Ali Riley (NZL)

Alex Morgan has been on a hot streak early in the NWSL season, helping lead Orlando to the best record in the league. Marta’s creativity will also be missed, especially if the Pride find themselves chasing games. But there are also reasons to believe that Orlando is going to be just fine with their international stars away. Sydney Leroux has been in fine form up top, Meggie Dougherty-Howard has been invaluable as a midfield engine, and Courtney Peterson and Phoebe McClernon have been developing nicely under the leadership of Ali Krieger, who will likely be the anchor of the backline (possibly along with new signing Amy Turner) while Ali Riley is away.

Instead of fading during the Olympic stretch, I expect the Pride to continue to pick up points in a similar fashion to the first quarter of the season. It might not be perfect, but if they can find a way to get the ball to Leroux or Taylor Kornieck, they’ll still be in the playoff mix when the international stars return.

5. North Carolina Courage

Current NWSL standing: 2nd
Will lose: Sam Mewis (USA), Lynn Williams (USA), Abby Erceg (NZL), Debinha (BRA)

Lynn Williams just barely missed the main U.S. roster. She will serve as an alternate in Tokyo, which will nevertheless take her away from her club presumably for much of the Olympic period. Her goal-scoring will be missed, but the team does benefit from the expertise of World Cup champion Jessica McDonald and long-time super sub Kristin Hamilton. Sam Mewis will be an impossible player to replace in the midfield (though do look for Hailie Mace to have a breakout game or two), and the Courage will likely try to fill Debinha’s creative output with a player in a more functional role.

However, the player the Courage can quietly least afford to lose is center-back stalwart Abby Erceg. She will be playing for New Zealand through at least the Olympic group stage (New Zealand has never advanced out of their group in an international tournament). Erceg has been essential to North Carolina’s recent steadiness in the defense, and when she was out early in the season due to a lingering injury, the Courage struggled to keep the ball out of the back of their own net.

North Carolina does benefit from having Casey Murphy available, who has been in the U.S. goalkeeper pool but wasn’t in contention for a 2021 spot. It’s going to be up to her to keep the Courage as organized as possible, lest they fall in the types of shootouts they found themselves in during the Challenge Cup.

(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

6. Gotham FC

Current NWSL standing: 5th
Will lose: Carli Lloyd (USA), Evelyne Viens (CAN), Kailen Sheridan (CAN)

Gotham’s biggest piece of good news comes from one of the highest-profile names not on the U.S. Olympic list: Midge Purce. Rather than going to Tokyo as an alternate, Purce now has the space to turn her attention fully to the NWSL. In the absences of Carli Lloyd and Evelyne Viens, Purce has already had one breakout game while paired with Ifeoma Onumonu in the attack; Paige Monaghan, who is currently out with an injury, should also join them for the long term.

Gotham will also benefit from the rising fitness of McCall Zerboni, whose place in the midfield allows Jennifer Cudjoe to move more freely in creative spaces. The Gotham backline will also be fully intact. Whereas in the past, the loss of Kailen Sheridan would be a concern for NJ/NY’s already impressively staunch goal differential, Didi Haracic proved a capable starter during the Challenge Cup. She’ll look to carry that momentum through the Olympic period and keep Gotham firmly in the playoff mix.

7. Racing Louisville

Current NWSL standing: 6th
Will lose: none

While not carrying any U.S. stars or Olympic standouts in their first year could be a long-term issue for Louisville, it might be something of a blessing during this next quarter of the NWSL season. Ebony Salmon has already proved to be a terrific signing and PSG legend Nadia Nadim will soon join her in the front-line. This should allow the team to keep building chemistry between their defense and their midfield, where they’ve been most vulnerable, giving them more chances to steal points from teams with loftier style goals while many of their opponents’ best players are away.

Look to Emily Fox to stake a claim toward the next U.S. roster with continued excellent play on the flank, and for Yuki Nagasato to continue in a facilitator role for Salmon and Nadim up top.

8. Chicago Red Stars

Current NWSL standing: 8th
Will lose: Julie Ertz (USA), Alyssa Naeher (USA), Tierna Davidson (USA), Casey Krueger (USA)

The Red Stars lost Julie Ertz a number of weeks ago when she left their regular season opener with an MCL sprain. They have capable backups to Alyssa Naeher in Cassie Miller and Emily Boyd, and Kayla Sharples seems ready to slide into the second center-back spot left by Tierna Davidson.

The bigger surprise is the inclusion of Casey Krueger as a U.S. alternate. Her absence will stretch the Chicago defense even further than anticipated. The Red Stars have struggled with their goal differential on both ends of the pitch in recent games, and while their midfield and attack will be completely intact, they still haven’t found ways to turn those players into a formidable unit. Despite this, the Olympic period serves as a good opportunity for that group to gel.

9. Houston Dash

Current NWSL standing: 7th
Will lose: Jane Campbell (USA), Kristie Mewis (USA), Sophie Schmidt (CAN), Allysha Chapman (CAN), Nichelle Prince (CAN), Rachel Daly (GB)

In something of a turn of fortune, the Olympics are hitting the Dash harder than possibly any other team in the league. The ascension of Jane Campbell and Kristie Mewis in the U.S. ranks, along with the inevitable losses of Allysha Chapman and Rachel Daly to Canada and England respectively, means that many of Houston’s most dynamic players will be missing for some time. Sophie Schmidt missed out on the main Canada roster but will be traveling to Tokyo as an alternate, which means Dash lose her steady presence in the midfield as they try to build some momentum after a rocky start to their regular season.

The Dash do have the depth to slot into the many gaps left by their Olympic players. The question will be whether they can get the same production from the wings without Nichelle Prince and from their full-team press with so much of their core in Tokyo. Look to Shea Groom to provide a spark and Gabby Seiler to have opportunities to become a midfield generator.

10. Kansas City NWSL

Current NWSL standing: 10th
Will lose: Katie Bowen (NZL), Desiree Scott (CAN), Chloe Logarzo (AUS)

Kansas City are losing fewer players than many other NWSL teams, but their issue continues to be getting out of first gear. They haven’t won a match yet in the regular season, despite being in a winning position numerous times, and will have deeper squad issues to deal with than the loss of Bowen, Scott, and Logarzo to the Olympics. Kansas City’s best bet for results will come from the tired legs of their opponents and focused work from Amy Rodriguez. Rachel Corsie should help the club on defense and Abby Smith’s development as a sweeper keeper will be key to keeping them in games.

This next stretch of games could line up in such a way that Kansas City manage their first win, but they still don’t quite have the pieces to make a deep run while their Olympic players are away.