The fourth season of the NWSL is kicks off this weekend, as the fledgling league enters a milestone campaign: the first women’s pro league in the past decade and a half to play four seasons.
The glamor of the World Cup still lingers, while the 2016 Olympics in Rio looms for national team hopefuls.
On Monday, teams announced their rosters for the upcoming season, with a number of promising rookies included. Here are 10 first-year players to keep an eye on this season.
F Rachel Daly, Houston Dash
A tenacious goal-scorer during her college career at St. John's, Daly is a hard-nosed English forward who can finish just about any opportunity presented to her in and around the box. She’ll need to hit the ground running relatively quickly with other forward options like Kealia Ohai, Chioma Ubogagu, Melissa Henderson and Janine Beckie on the Dash roster, though she's certainly capable of making an impression.
M Raquel Rodriguez, Sky Blue FC
Plenty of uncertainty surrounds Sky Blue this season as they search for improvement under a new head coach. Rodriguez, who they snatched with the second overall pick, is a player who can help foster that. A deep-lying central midfielder capable of lining up in different spots in the middle, her deployment is something to keep an eye on this season and could dictate her success one way or another.
D Katie Naughton, Chicago Red Stars
The former U.S. youth World Cup veteran, Naughton enjoyed a solid and steady career in South Bend. She won’t force her way into the starting lineup right away, though with Julie Johnston likely to be off with the national team for large chunks of the season, Naughton will certainly get a long look to show what she can contribute in central defense.
GK Abby Smith, Boston Breakers
Young goalkeepers always face a hard road from college to the pro ranks, and Smith will get the chance to in Boston after signing with the Breakers. She’ll likely start the season as the backup to Libby Stout, an American who is returning to the States after playing for Liverpool in 2014 and 2015. The competition is sure to bring out the best of the U.S. youth veteran, who has plenty of potential and now has the chance to develop and battle for playing time.
M Samantha Witteman, Orlando Pride
A dynamic, athletic and versatile player who leveraged an outstanding senior season into an opportunity with Orlando, Witteman now faces the challenge of producing consistently on the brand new expansion team. Her versatility is an asset that likely helped her make the team, as she can play up front, in the midfield or even along the back line.
D Emily Sonnett, Portland Thorns
Being the No. 1 overall pick is always going to come with pressure to perform, and that is no different for Sonnett. The 22-year-old center back is tough, battle-tested and a great ball-playing defender who was one of the best players in college soccer over the past few seasons. There will be plenty of adjustments to make, and the stakes are high as Sonnett aims to make a case for her inclusion with the U.S. Olympic side, though she is talented enough for it come together quickly.
F Cali Farquharson, Washington Spirit
Creative and technical, Farquharson joins fellow rookie Cheyna Williams on the Spirit roster up front. Crystal Dunn is the main focus to the team’s attack with Katie Stengel also joining the fold up top, so there won't be pressure to perform right away. Farquharson faces a tough battle for playing time, though she’s another weapon who could come good if the opportunity arises. Her battle with Williams for playing time is going to be a story line to watch this season.
D Carson Pickett, Seattle Reign FC
Another promising youngster who can rely on versatility, Pickett’s ability to play as a left back and a left-sided midfielder, is sure to be a huge plus. She can provide excellent service from the flank, and as long as she adjusts to the defensive demands of an outside back spot in the NWSL, she’s a sure-fire Rookie of the Year candidate.
F Makenzy Doniak, Western NY Flash
Back on draft day, Doniak was something of a surprise faller, ending up with the Flash in the second round. Her college numbers were stellar, scoring 64 goals and chippin in 36 assists. Translating that production to the professional ranks is a big ask, though Doniak is sure to use the motivation of her draft fall in order to punish other teams. If she’s fit and sharp, Doniak should be able to make significant progress this season.
D Katie Bowen, FC Kansas City
Few players bring the same kind of pedigree to the NWSL like Bowen. The New Zealand international played in both the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, and was certainly a sleeper when she came off the board to FCKC in the second round of the 2016 draft. A versatile player capable of stepping into midfield or defensive roles, provided. The ability to step in anywhere, along with her skills and experience bode well for her chances of playing significant minutes this season. The one caveat is that Bowen plans to finish her degree at North Carolina and also is expected to be at this summer’s Olympics, so her availability will be limited this season.