Morgan Gautrat and Ashley Sanchez face off in the 2021 NWSL championship game. Photo by Michael Cox/Keeper Notes.
by Grant Wiedenfeld
Not only did we make it all the through the 2021 season, but it was also the longest season in league history! There’s a lot look back on, and a lot to look forward to. 2022 will add two more teams and shake up the pecking order entirely. It is with trepidation that I begin by revisiting my predictions from a year ago:
January 2021 Predictions
Challenge Cup: Portland Thorns
Correct, barely! I definitely did not predict Gotham to perform so well.
NWSL Shield: North Carolina Courage
Nope. The glory years did not continue.
NWSL champions: Houston Dash
I swear, if they had made the playoffs …
Best 2021 Kits: Racing Louisville FC
Certainly the most unique!
2022 Team Rankings
Tier 1: Trophy or Bust
Can they handle defeat? They simply never lost after Richie Burke’s departure in August and there’s nothing to suggest they cannot continue at the same level in 2022 under head coach Kris Ward
, who finally got the interim tag removed from his title last month
. The best way to deal with defeat is to avoid it. The only starter not returning is Tegan McGrady
(traded to San Diego), and she was already splitting time with Julia Roddar.
The main worries of the 2021 champions will be unresolved ownership issues, injuries, and other clubs boosted by newcomers. The kits may not evolve until a new owner comes in, but the lack of sartorial “spirit” has not hampered them so far.
2021 season grade: A+. Exceeded my goal of making the postseason, climbing to the top of the rankings despite forfeiting two matches due to Covid protocol violations. Ashley Hatch earned the Golden Boot with 10 goals and Aubrey Bledsoe bagged her second Goalkeeper of the Year award.
Returning starters: Dorian Bailey, Aubrey Bledsoe, Ashley Hatch, Kelley O’Hara, Julia Roddar, Trinity Rodman, Ashley Sanchez, Emily Sonnett, Sam Staab, Andi Sullivan.
Key additions: Alia Martin
(free agent), Gaby Vincent (trade)
Key losses: Tegan McGrady (expansion), Paige Nielsen (expansion)
Pedigree: 1 NWSL Championship (2021), 4 playoff berths
Was something missing in the November playoffs, beyond the absences of Dunn and Horan? If not, there’s good reason to think Portland will win another trophy in 2022. Fans certainly hope that Crystal Dunn, who missed the playoffs due to pregnancy, will return for a deep run in the fall. Under new head coach Rhian Wilkinson and GM Karina LeBlanc, both Canadian national team legends, perhaps they’ll watermark a maple leaf into the kits. It might give Christine Sinclair extra motivation, as if she ever needed any.
2021 season grade: A-. Won the Challenge Cup and the NWSL Shield, but fell short of the top prize without Horan or Dunn available for the semifinal.
Returning starters: Bella Bixby, Lindsey Horan, Meghan Klingenberg, Natalia Kuikka, Emily Menges, Rocky Rodriguez, Angela Salem, Becky Sauerbrunn, Christine Sinclair, Sophia Smith, Morgan Weaver
Key additions: none
Key losses: Simone Charley (expansion), Tyler Lussi (expansion), Christen Westphal (expansion)
Pedigree: 2 NWSL championships (2013, 2017), 7 playoff berths, 2 NWSL Shields, 1 Challenge Cup, 1 Fall Series title, 2021 Women’s International Champions Cup
Tier 2: Semifinal or bust
Since they hired Laura Harvey as head coach again, why not move back to Seattle? In her previous stint the club won two NWSL Shields but lost twice in the championship game. This time the Reign were fearsome against everyone but Washington down the stretch. The 2022 roster will see some big changes as the three Lyon loanees have departed — quel dommage! Thankfully, the Reign have an abundance of young players eager to step into a starting role, such as Phoebe McClernon in defense or back-from-injury Ally Watt up top. Also, consider new kits with long-sleeve jerseys and tights to gain an edge in the burn-prone Cascadia turf war.
2021 season grade: A. Exceeded my expectation of a 3–6 seed. Bounced back from a coaching change with a great run that featured some fantastic goals and big wins. Jess Fishlock nabbed MVP honors and Laura Harvey earned her third Coach of the Year nod.
Returning starters: Angelina, Bethany Balcer, Lauren Barnes, Alana Cook, Jess Fishlock, Sofia Huerta, Rose Lavelle, Quinn, Megan Rapinoe
Key additions: Phoebe McClernon (trade)
Key losses: Sarah Bouhaddi (end of loan), Ella Dederick (trade), Eugénie Le Sommer (end of loan), Dzsenifer Marozsán (end of loan), Kristen McNabb (expansion), Dani Weatherholt (expansion)
Pedigree: 2 NWSL Shields (2014-15), 5 playoff berths
NJ/NY GOTHAM FC
A club that was once a cellar-dweller is now a contender. They took a dashing new name (not associated with the DC comic Batman, as the disclaimer on their website will have you know). Both GM and head coach turned over in 2021 but the roster remains potent. If she stays in the league, Kristie Mewis brings more attack to the Gotham midfield. The club’s two outstanding goalkeepers of 2021 have been replaced with USWNT veteran Ashlyn Harris, who also brings along Ali Krieger on the back line. Will the veteran power couple thrive anew or be distracted by the big city circus? Gotham will be in black kits, again, but the game day fits on this club will bring plenty of creativity.
2021 season grade: A-. Fingertips away from a Challenge Cup title, also earned club’s first playoff berth since 2013. No slouch no more. Caprice Dydasco won Defender of the Year.
Returning starters: Imani Dorsey, Caprice Dydasco, Estelle Johnson, Gina Lewandowski, Nahomi Kawasumi, Allie Long, Ifeoma Onumonu, Margaret Purce, McCall Zerboni
Key additions: Ashlyn Harris (trade), Ali Krieger (trade), Kristie Mewis (trade)
Key losses: Carli Lloyd (retirement), Kailen Sheridan (expansion), DiDi Haracic (expansion)
Pedigree: 2 playoff berths, 2021 Cup finalist
Tier 3: Postseason or bust
CHICAGO RED STARS
The Red Stars feel like a blank slate after Rory Dames’ departure and major player migrations to California. They were already missing key contributors to injury; then, the club traded four stalwarts when expansion would have nabbed at most two. Although the starting roster remains strong the depth is gone. Casey Krueger announced that she is pregnant so will likely miss the season. My expectations drops a tier. This team needs some fresh energy. Start by ditching the black kits. Adopting the color red may be obvious and it wouldn’t be wrong; or, wear the bandera whites at home.
2021 season grade: A; reduced to B for bad behavior. I can’t reward winning at all costs, but the players deserve credit for another fantastic run to the championship.
Returning starters: Tierna Davidson, Vanessa DiBernardo, Morgan Gautrat, Rachel Hill, Tatumn Milazzo, Mallory Pugh, Cassie Miller, Kealia Watt, Sarah Woldmoe, Arin Wright
Key additions: none
Key losses: Makenzy Doniak, Julie Ertz (trade/expansion), Sarah Gorden (trade/expansion), Katie Johnson,
Pedigree: 6 playoff berths
NORTH CAROLINA COURAGE
Looking back on their championship rosters, half the spine is gone; on the bright side, it’s half-intact and now features one of the best goalkeepers in the league. The wings could be more potent after adding Jaelene Daniels and Kiki Pickett. Coaching may prove pivotal, with Sean Nahas replacing malefactor Paul Riley. Or maybe the kits will tell us if the team will revive its glory years or turn in a new direction.
2021 season grade: B. Barely made the playoffs (thanks to the new six-team playoff format) but took Washington to the wire. Casey Murphy made a superb case for goalkeeper of the year, breaking club records and tying the league record for shutouts in one season.
Returning starters: Debinha, Abby Erceg, Kaleigh Kurtz, Merritt Mathias, Casey Murphy, Denise O’Sullivan, Carson Pickett, Amy Rodriguez, Havana Solaun, Lynn Williams
Key additions: Jaelene Daniels (out of retirement), Kiki Pickett (trade), Brianna Pinto (trade)
Key losses: Jessica McDonald (trade), Cari Roccaro (trade/expansion), Angharad James (trade/expansion)
Pedigree: 2 NWSL championships (2018, 2019), 3 NWSL Shields (2017-19), 4 playoff berths, 2018 Women’s International Champions Cup
Inconsistency is consistently their nemesis. Goals came in bunches but not in the last three games of the regular season when the club was on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time. Missing out on the playoffs stung. As the only remaining head coach from the start of the 2021 season, James Clarkson, could carve a new groove with some slight roster changes. On the player side, what they really need is a new personality to lead the team, replacing Kristie Mewis and combining with Rachel Daly and Jane Campbell. Could it be Tigres forward Maria Sanchez, ironwoman Katie Naughton, or an emerging younger player? At least the color of their home kits has been consistent.
2021 season grade: C. They collapsed far below my expectation of a semifinal. They were above average but had potential to achieve much more.
Returning starters: Jane Campbell, Rachel Daly, Allysha Chapman, Shea Groom, Haley Hanson, Katie Naughton, Megan Oyster, Nichelle Prince, Sophie Schmidt, Gabby Seiler, Bri Visalli
Key additions: Julia Ashley (trade), Ella Dederick (trade), Paulina Gramaglia (loan), Kelcie Hedge (trade), Maria Sanchez (from Tigres)
Key losses: Kristie Mewis (expansion), Jasmyne Spencer (expansion)
Pedigree: 1 Challenge Cup (2020)
Tier 4: Big Moment or Bust
KANSAS CITY CURRENT
They’re not the only team with a new brand, new stadium, or new coach — but they are the team that acquired Sam Mewis, arguably the best midfielder in the league. Huw Williams tinkered with the roster throughout 2021 and the team played well down the stretch. They’re poised to have bigger moments in 2022 and likely new kits too, along with new head coach as Williams transitions to the role of technical direcdor. The USWNT already used a river theme in their navy 2020 away kits, unfortunately. I expect smooth curves galore and candy-apple red.
2021 season grade: C+. Struggled much of the year but stayed in the fight and had an encouraging undefeated streak at home.
Returning starters: Elizabeth Ball, Rachel Corsie, Kristen Edmonds, Adrianna Franch, Kristen Hamilton, Darian Jenkins, Lo’eau LaBonta, Hallie Mace, Victoria Pickett, Desiree Scott
Key additions: Sam Mewis (trade)
Key losses: Katie Bowen, Mariana Larroquette, Kiki Pickett (trade)
Pedigree: ghost of 2 FC Kansas City championships
For a team that started from scratch and lost its first head coach in late August, Louisville looks seasoned and spicy going into its sophomore season. Their biggest weakness in 2021 was the midfield, so they lucked out when USWNT midfielder Jaelin Howell fell to them in the draft. The reins are being handed to younger players and to a young new coach, Kim Björkegren. I’ve heard their home kits mocked for resembling nurses’ scrubs. You know what? Nurses are awesome and so are the fleurs-de-lis with bumblebees.
2021 season grade: B. Had a few fantastic wins that announced their presence to the league.
Returning starters: Gemma Bonner, Emily Fox, Cece Kizer, Katie Lund, Lauren Milliet, Nadia Nadim (recovering from ACL), Yuki Nagasato, Freja Olofsson, Ebony Salmon, Erin Simon
Key additions: Kirsten Davis, Jaelin Howell (draft), Jessica McDonald (trade)
Key losses: Julia Ashley (trade), Michelle Betos (waived), Savannah McCaskill (trade), Kaleigh Riehl (expansion),
ANGEL CITY FC
They haven’t even had a practice yet but I’m already ranking them above Orlando. LA hired experienced NWSL coach Freya Coombe and have acquired proven players for key positions. They were confident enough to announce Christen Press’s signing on their own timeline (the league fined them for it), so I don’t think they will mind the head start I’m giving them in the rankings. Their home kits are behind the curve on the black trend, however — Angel City’s is the sixth black kit in the league. It has no color highlights. So the club will need to distinguish itself on the field.
Acquisitions: Simone Charley, Katie Cousins, Jun Endo, Julie Ertz, Sarah Gorden, Vanessa Gilles, DiDi Haracic, Tyler Lussi, Paige Nielsen, Christen Press, Cari Roccaro, Jasmyne Spencer, Allyson Swaby, MA Vignola, Dani Weatherholt
Almost every team in the league lost its head coach during the season last year, but Orlando seemed to suffer the most. After jumping out to a great start in the first half of the season, coach Marc Skinner left in July to return home as coach of Manchester United. The Pride limped to the finish and then traded away their core USWNT stars. Since then they pressed reset, hired coach Amanda Cromwell from UCLA, and picked three players in the first round, including Bruin/US U-20 star Mia Fishel. Why not ditch the black kits and go full purple, too?
2021 season grade: C-. Missed the postseason and finished without their stars playing.
Returning starters: Gunny Jonsdottir, Erin McLeod, Courtney Petersen, Toni Pressley, Ali Riley, Marisa Viggiano, Marta, Taylor Kornieck, Sydney Leroux
Key additions: Celia (trade), Mia Fishel (draft), Angharad James (trade), Leah Pruitt (trade)
Key losses: Ashlyn Harris (trade), Ali Krieger (trade), Phoebe McClernon (trade), Alex Morgan (expansion)
Pedigree: 1 playoff berth (2017)
SAN DIEGO WAVE
I’m charmed by the crest’s bright pink and blue. Won’t it be fun to see what happens with a return of wosopro to San Diego after almost twenty years? Club president Jill Ellis doesn’t give the impression of levity (except for a few wacky moments during the expansion draft broadcast) but head coach Casey Stoney fears no one. Like Angel City, they’ve built out their roster from the back. If the kits follow the crest design elements they can’t go wrong.
Acquisitions: Abby Dahlkemper, Makenzy Doniak, Naomi Girma (draft), Katie Johnson, Tegan McGrady, Kristen McNabb, Alex Morgan, Kaleigh Riehl, Marleen Schimmer (draft), Kailen Sheridan, Jodie Taylor, Kelsey Turnbow, Christen Westphal
January 2022 Predictions:
Challenge Cup: Washington Spirit
NWSL Shield: OL Reign
NWSL champions: NJ/NY Gotham FC
Best 2022 kits: San Deigo Wave