The historic fourth season of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is set to kickoff on Saturday, April 16 as 10 teams take field for the first time in an official game in 2016. The opening match between the Washington Spirit and the Boston Breakers will mark the first time a women’s professional soccer league in the U.S. has reached a fourth season. Here are the five match-ups to watch and what the U.S. Women’s National Team players (who have earned a cap since the start of 2015) will be facing:
Saturday, April 16
Washington Spirit vs. Boston Breakers – 7 p.m. ET
The inaugural game of the 2016 season features the Washington Spirit hosting the Boston Breakers at Maureen Hendricks Field at Maryland Soccerplex, where last year the Spirit compiled a dominant 6-1-3 home record. The Spirit will also that the stellar play of 2015 NWSL MVP and WNT forward Crystal Dunn continues into the new campaign. After being one of the final players cut from the Women’s World Cup roster, Dunn scored 15 goals for her club (out of the team’s 31), and made the most of her season, taking full advantage playing in attacking positions. New head coach Jim Gabarra (who returns to Washington after coaching there in previous leagues) will be hoping for a similar level of production the club looks to return to the playoffs for the third consecutive year. Two U.S. defenders, one on each side, will also be featured as Ali Krieger begins her fourth year with the Spirit, and Whitney Engen plays her first game with Breakers after previously playing with the Western NY Flash.
Houston Dash vs. Chicago Red Stars – 8:30 p.m. ET
Houston will host Chicago in what will be the seventh meeting between the two teams. The Dash has yet to beat Chicago and has an overall record 0-3-3 record against them including a 0-2-1 record at home. WNT co-captain and midfielder Carli Lloyd led Houston to a fifth-place finish in 2015 and scored four goals, a team-leading mark during the team’s second season in the league. Midfielder Morgan Brian, who has been sideline with a minor hamstring injury that caused her to miss the two April WNT matches vs. Colombia, will look to return to the field and help the Dash into playoff contention.
Chicago enters 2016 hoping to build off a highly successful 2015 that saw the team enter NWSL postseason for the first time in franchise history. Despite only playing in 11 games last year, forward Christen Press scored 10 goals for the Red Stars adding a powerful boost to the attack in her limited amount of time on the field. Chicago will also count on U.S. defender Julie Johnston, who is coming off scoring her first career brace for the WNT against Colombia on April 10. With the addition of goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, head coach Rory Dames will look for the defense to add to its fantastic performance last season when the Red Stars only conceded 11 goals on the road, a league-leading number.
FC Kansas City vs. Western New York Flash – 8:30 p.m. ET
FC Kansas City, the back-to-back NWSL champions, opens its season hosting the Western New York on Saturday and will be led by defender, WNT co-captain, FCKC captain and three-time NWSL Defender of the Year Becky Sauerbrunn. FCKC will look to rely heavily on its defense after the retirement of 2013 NWSL MVP Lauren Holiday and the pregnancy of forwards Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux, which has sidelined both players for the season. Fortunately for FCKC, the midfield will be in good hands under the leadership of veteran Heather O’Reilly. Despite two titles for Kansas City, the team has never added the NWSL Shield to their trophy case, meaning it will be aiming not only for a third title, but also for the best record in the league.
On the other side, the Flash comes into 2016 with a young squad led by WNT midfielder Samantha Mewis and WNT defender Jaelene Hinkle. After going 0-2-1 against the Blues in 2015, and only winning one of their first five games to start the season, the Flash will be looking for a stronger start this time around and build towards a deep run in the playoffs.
Sunday, April 17
Seattle Reign FC vs. Sky Blue FC – 7 p.m. ET
Seattle Reign FC will try to make 2016 the year it finally claims its first NWSL championship. Despite being back-to-back NWSL Shield winners, the league title eluded them following defeats in the championship match to FC Kansas City in both 2014 and 2015. The Reign welcomes Sky Blue FC into Memorial Stadium, where they hold a 22-match unbeaten streak against opponents. While the Reign won’t count on midfielder Megan Rapinoe until her return later this year following rehab for a torn ACL back in December, they will have the dominant presence of goalkeeper Hope Solo as she aims to guide the team to another league-leading record. After missing out on the playoffs the last two seasons, Sky Blue FC enters 2016 with a re-vamped team and with high hopes after adding some new talent to its roster. Kelley O’Hara, who has always produced on the club level, will lead the team’s quest for a post-season appearance while former U.S. captain Christie Rampone returns from knee surgery for her 10th season of professional club soccer.
Portland Thorns vs. Orlando Pride – 10 p.m. ET
After the addition of the Houston Dash made it a nine-team league in 2014, the NWSL welcomed its 10th franchise late last year with the Orlando Pride, who made big waves by acquiring U.S. WNT forward Alex Morgan from the Portland Thorns FC and goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris from the Washington Spirit.
The matchup will be particularly interesting not only because it brings Morgan face-to-face against her previous club, where she scored 15 goals and 11 assists and won the 2013 NWSL championship, but also because the Thorns have five WNT players on its roster, including midfielders Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan and Allie Long, and defenders Meghan Klingenberg and Emily Sonnett. The revamped squad on the Thorns side, which includes a new coach in Mark Parsons, came after the team missed the playoffs in 2015, the first time it had done so in franchise history.
All matches will be streamed live on the NWSL YouTube page. For more in-depth information and the latest news and updates about the NWSL schedule, matchups, records, etc, visit: www.nwslsoccer.com and follow them on Twitter @NWSL