When the Orlando Pride open their season on Saturday against the Utah Royals, there will be plenty of prime time players on both teams. I'll take a closer look at three players from each team who could change the game for either team.
Players to Watch - Orlando Pride
- Marta - The FIFA five-time Player of the Year ranked second across the NWSL in both goals (13) and assists (six) in 2017. The offense flowed through Marta and goals found the back of the net off of her foot directly, or from a number of other talented teammates to whom she fed the ball. Two of her favorite targets were fellow Brazilian Camila and USWNT star striker Alex Morgan.
- Alex Morgan - In 2017 Morgan started the year playing in the French league. Over 13 appearances with the Pride in 2017, Morgan registered nine goals and four assists. In 2018, she will play the full season for the Orlando Pride (minus any time away for duty with the International Team). Morgan and Marta found an almost immediate chemistry on the pitch when the American returned to the NWSL midseason last year. I expect that partnership to be even stronger this year, and the two teammates could well push each other to try to claim the league's "Golden Boot" award for the most goals scored all season.
- Sydney Leroux - Leroux spent 2017 playing for FC Kansas City, the team that was destined to become the 2018 Utah Royals. Because of her knowledge of the opponent, I expect her to be in the Starting XI on Saturday and to have an impact. Leroux scored six goals and had two assists with FC Kansas City, and she has never had the luxury of a playmaker like Marta to help her offensive output. 2017 was Leroux's return to professional football after the birth of her son, Cassius, born to her and husband Dom Dwyer of the Orlando City MLS side. According to media reports, Tom Sermanni has said Leroux's form is even better this year than what he saw last season, so it should be no surprise if she finds a way to figure into some scoring plays on the day.
Players to Watch - Utah Royals
- Nicole Barnhart - Barnhart was the NWSL save leader in 2017, making 97 saves and recording six clean sheets as the starting keeper for FC Kansas City. But Barnhart cannot rest on the strength of her numbers from last season. During offseason transactions, Utah also acquired Abby Smith from the Boston Breakers dispersal draft. Smith was second in the NWSL in saves, with 85 and three clean sheets in 2017. I'm expecting Barnhart to be in goal on Saturday, but even if Smith is the starter, the Pride will be challenged to put many balls in the back of the net past either of these netminders.
- Kelley O'Hara - O'Hara was a big signing for Utah in the off-season. She actually ranks second in the current Utah roster in goals (behind Meagan Kelly), but she has a more balanced offensive stat line with four goals and three assists from last season. O'Hara also has more shots (27) and shots on goal (18) than any other player on the current Utah roster. I would expect both players to be on the pitch on Saturday and play key roles in the Utah attack. But I'm putting O'Hara on my Players to Watch list for her versatility as both a creator of opportunity and a goal scorer.
- Meagan Kelly - Admit it--you thought I was going to leave her off the list, didn't you! Kelly scored five goals and had one assist on the season last year. But she makes the list for her shooting. She is second on the Royals in terms of shots (behind Kelley O'Hara). Meagan Kelly--sorry, with all these Kelleys and Kellys I feel like I have to write out her full name every time or I'll get confused--had 27 shots and 14 shots on goal in 2017.
Tomorrow on the blog, I'll discuss the Series History of the rivalry, going back to the days of FC Kansas City.
Whom do you expect to see playing prominent roles for both teams on Saturday? Do you think that the usual suspects will be the ones that are game changers in this matchup, or do you expect the action to come from players that maybe don't get as much attention as the major stars on both teams? Let me know in the comments below!