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Thorns Down Under: W-League preview

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The NWSL’s informal sister league starts up in the wee hours Thursday morning.

A-League 2018/19 Season Launch
Ellie Carpenter at the W-League season launch.
Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

As days grow shorter on this side of the world and we all prepare for a long soccer hibernation, the other side of the world is gearing up to start a summer league. The W-League kicks off this week, and promises once again to be an ever-improving competition for the 12 a.m. – 4 a.m. time slot we were all desperately seeking to fill in our lives over the winter. ESPN+ will be hosting one or two W-League games a week, and will start their coverage with Sydney FC vs Western Sydney Wanderers, which will run at 1:30 a.m. PST on Thursday morning.

All the Thorns making their return to the W-League — Emily Sonnett, sadly, will stay in this hemisphere — will play for the clubs they were at last season. Not only does this make things a little easier for part-time followers to keep track of (especially in a league with comparatively huge levels of player turnover from year to year), it provides some continuity of coaching staff for players with their development in mind. For such young players — the oldest making the trip over for the offseason is 25-year-old Britt Eckerstrom — progress in the offseason is important, not only to them as individuals but for the growth of the team. Like last season, Stumptown Footy will be covering the Thorns in the W-League to see what strides they make — not to mention that it will be hugely fun.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the teams the Thorns will find themselves on this season:

W-League Semi Final - Brisbane v Melbourne City Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images

Brisbane Roar

Celeste Boureille and Hayley Raso return to the club that won the Shield last year but fell in the semi-final. Last year’s team was excellent defensively, anchored by the experienced Clare Polkinghorne, but struggled for offense. Raso did well as their primary goal threat cutting in from the wings, but the rest of the attack was young and struggled to contribute. Yuki Nagasato and Chioma Ubogagu provide a huge injection of talent up top alongside her and should massively improve the only real weak spot of the team. With Tameka Butt making the switch to Melbourne City, Nagasato should take her place as the attacking midfielder drifting forward for maximum offensive impact. Katrina Gorry, after struggling for minutes in the NWSL, will no doubt be particularly keen to reassert her billing as one of the most underrated midfielders in world soccer.

The last W-League season was when Celeste Boureille made her case as a starting NWSL midfielder by having a huge defensive influence against other international-quality midfielders. Now is the time for her to develop her two-way ability. With Nagasato drifting further forward than Butt did, Boureille will likely get time on the ball. She’ll have to consistently make the right decisions going forward as she fights to retain the spot she earned over the course of the NWSL season.

For Raso, meanwhile, the season is all about getting back on track. Her recovery from a painful back injury seems to be going according to schedule, which means she may be featuring in games as early as November. The W-League, admittedly, runs at a slower pace than the NWSL, so it will be a good environment for her to get up to speed again and work toward being able to reproduce the full commitment on the field that has become her trademark. After that, it’ll be interesting to see her continue to develop as an inverted winger: she mostly played on the left for Brisbane last year, cutting inside to take shots with her right foot. She showed this ability once or twice for Portland last year, but perfecting it could eventually bump her up to the ranks of the truly world class.

Sydney FC

Caitlin Foord returns to losing W-League finalists Sydney, who have made some pretty dramatic offseason additions to a roster that already had the most dangerous attack in the league last year. Sofia Huerta and Danielle Colaprico reunite to run the midfield, while Savannah McCaskill will get a chance to show off what she can bring to a good team, a nice break from toiling away at Sky Blue FC. Alanna Kennedy makes the switch over from Melbourne City, and Chloe Logarzo is no longer Australia’s best-kept secret after scoring against the US from midfield in the Tournament of Nations.

Foord had an interrupted season last year, joining the team late and then going out with a major foot injury in the semi-final just when it looked like she was hitting her stride. After playing well but not scoring in the few weeks she ended up being available for the Thorns, expectations are high for her to show what she can do. Any offense with Lisa De Vanna on it is going to run around her to some degree, but with so much talent going forward, Foord will be expected to produce. Exactly the role she will play alongside Logarzo and Huerta, two midfielders who tend to take a lot of shots themselves, will be interesting to watch — an imperfect analogue for her fit with Sinclair and Horan back home.

England Women v Australia Women - International Friendly Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Canberra United

Australian soccer’s favorite wonderchild, Ellie Carpenter, will be returning to a Canberra side whose striker of ten years, former Thorn Ashleigh Sykes, has hung up her boots and taken the job as assistant coach. Michelle Heyman, the other main attacking option last year, is also out, as Canberra have focused largely on up-and-coming Australian talent for the season ahead. As for their overseas talent, Canberra have exchanged Toni Pressley for Rachel Corsie for a defensive upgrade, and North Carolina’s Denise O’Sullivan will make the trek over to provide some offensive impetus from midfield. Refiloe Jane and Rhoda Mulaudzi will be hoping to continue to demonstrate that South African players have been undervalued for years, as Thembi Kgatlana and Linda Motlhalo have done in Houston.

Canberra are one of the most storied franchises in the W-League, but they had their worst season ever last year, even though they just barely missed out on the playoffs. It’s a big transitional season for them. With their leading lights of the past behind them, Carpenter is now the identifiable face of this team. She was given the range to do largely whatever she wanted as the season progressed last year, with Canberra growing desperate to make their offense tick, and she showed off her wide range of skills, playing roles as varied as fullback and free creative playmaker.

It’ll be interesting to see how she is used this season: Canberra coach Heather Garriock is dedicated to player development and will surely be in regular contact with both Mark Parsons and Matildas head coach Alen Stajcic as to her direction and growth as a player. Carpenter has shown flashes of incredible ability in her short time as a Thorn, and making that a regular part of her game, no matter where on the field she plays, is the priority.

W-League Rd 14 - Newcastle v Melbourne Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images

Newcastle Jets

Britt Eckerstrom returns to last year’s most-improved team, the Newcastle Jets, who are undergoing a fairly major reinvention. Joining her from the NWSL will be Orlando’s Emily Van Egmond and Utah’s Katie Stengel. Taylor Smith is also making the trip over after a disappointing season at the Washington Spirit, but the big move in defense is the transfer of Larissa Crummer from Melbourne City, who has been spotted playing in central defense for the Matildas on their recent tour of Europe after having last been seen in the US as a bench-warming striker for the Seattle Reign.

Eckerstrom showed off her stopping ability last year, but this season presents a new challenge: helping someone learn how to play center back. Stajcic is committed to seeing how much of a defender he can make out of Crummer; she has the athleticism to be a huge upgrade there for Australia, but it will be a process for her to adjust to playing on the other end of the field from what she’s accustomed to. If Eckerstrom is asked to help coach Crummer on the field, especially alongside two fullbacks in Smith and Hannah Brewer who love to run the lines, it will be an opportunity to demonstrate her organizational ability as a goalkeeper and not just her reflex saves.