With yesterday's announcement of the full Orlando Pride schedule, we've come to the planning stages for the 2016 NWSL season. Fans who are unable to purchase full season tickets, or who have other commitments or responsibilities that will keep them from buying the whole season package, will now begin to look the schedule over to decide which games they should circle on their calendars.
With only 10 teams in the league, it's a short season schedule, with only 10 home matches -- one each against the other nine teams, plus a second home game against the Houston Dash. So let's say you can only afford, or make it to, a few matches this summer. Which ones should you attend? There are plenty of options, but these are probably your best bet for an exciting match-up and star power.
Saturday, April 23 vs. Houston Dash
In addition to it being the first ever home game in Pride history, with what is sure to be the biggest Citrus Bowl crowd of the NWSL season, this match-up offers plenty to the discerning soccer fan. Let's start with FIFA Player of the Year Carli Lloyd. The captain of the United States Women's National Team starts in the Dash midfield and pulls the strings for Houston. If you've yet to see Lloyd in person, this will be a great opportunity to see the player who has become the new face of the USWNT. She scored four goals in 12 appearances with the Dash last season.
Houston climbed from a ninth-place finish (out of nine teams) in 2014 to finish fifth in last year's NWSL season, with six wins, eight losses and six draws. Even with that improvement, Houston finished six points behind the Washington Spirit for the final playoff spot. Despite the presence of Lloyd and fellow USWNT midfielder Morgan Brian on the roster, the Dash offer an opportunity for the Pride to get into the win column early.
Players to watch: Lloyd, Brian (three assists last season), and forward Kealia Ohai. Ohai was team MVP last season with four goals and five assists on the year. She has seven goals and six assists over the past two years.
Bonus: The Dash return on Thursday, June 23, so if you miss them in April, you'll get a second crack at seeing them.
Sunday, May 8 vs. Seattle Reign FC
The Reign won the NWSL Supporters Shield in 2015 by a full 10 points, winning 13 games, with three losses and four draws. Seattle led the league in goal differential (+20) and reached the final against FC Kansas City before falling, 1-0.
Seattle includes some names you know, like USWNT goalkeeper Hope Solo and midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who is still recovering from a knee injury sustained on the Victory Tour. Head Coach Laura Harvey's team is very good and many expect the Reign to be right back in the championship hunt in 2016. The team features three finalists for 2015 NWSL MVP, including midfielders Jessica Fishlock and Kim Little, and forward Beverly Yanez, along with Defender of the Year finalists Kendall Fletcher and Laura Barnes. Barnes, Fishlock, Little and Yanez made the league's Best XI. Little scored 10 goals a year ago, Yanez found the net nine times, and Fishlock added eight more.
The Reign boasted the league's best win (6) and unbeaten (8) streaks a year ago. The match will serve as a good barometer for the Pride to see how far the team has to go to compete with the best.
Players to watch: Solo, Fishlock, Little, Yanez, Barnes, and Rapinoe (if healthy).
Sunday, June 26 vs. Portland Thorns FC
The Thorns finished sixth last season (6-9-5) but they were killed by international call-ups and are certainly built for success in 2016. Portland sent Alex Morgan to Orlando in a move that netted several quality players. Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, midfielder Lindsey Horan and defender Meghan Klingenberg joined the club in the off-season, along with draft pick Emily Sonnett, College Cup's Most Outstanding Defensive Player from 2014. Sonnett is seeing more and more action with the USWNT, and of course Klingenberg is perhaps the world's best left back at the moment. Also on the roster is U.S. international midfielder Tobin Heath.
In addition, the team boasts midfielder Allie Long, who scored 10 goals in league play a year ago, and Canadian legend Christine Sinclair, who scored twice and assisted on two goals in nine appearances during a season that was shortened by international responsibilities at the FIFA Women's World Cup.
These teams will meet in Portland in the season opener, but it's still a game with a lot on the line, as Morgan, Steph Catley, Lianne Sanderson and Kaylyn Kyle will face their former teammates.
Players to watch: Sinclair, Long, Klingenberg, Horan, and Heath.
Saturday, Sept. 24 vs. FC Kansas City
The regular season finale comes against the defending NWSL champions. FCKC finished third in the regular season with a 9-6-5 mark a year ago, but caught fire in the playoffs, beating the Chicago Red Stars 3-0 in the semifinals and then blanking Seattle Reign FC 1-0 in the final.
But, despite a stellar 2015, there is trouble on the horizon for FCKC that will make a repeat bid very difficult. Amy Rodriguez (6 goals, 4 assists) is out on maternity leave, as is forward Sydney Leroux, who was acquired in the off-season. Other departures include the retirement of Lauren Holiday and Sarah Hagen moving on to the Pride.
But the cupboard isn't bare for Kansas City. The club features center back Becky Sauerbrunn of the USWNT, who may be the world's best player at her position, despite recently being snubbed on a number of "Best XI" lists for the suddenly popular Julie Johnston. Forward Shea Groom scored four goals and added two assists last season. USWNT midfielder Heather O'Reilly scored twice and assisted on three goals last year and won't be taxed with as much international duty in 2016. Midfielder Erika Tymrak, a product of nearby Bradenton, scored three times last season and is entering her prime years.
Players to watch: Sauerbrunn, O'Reilly, Groom.
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Those are my picks for the top home matches to attend in 2016. Who are you most looking forward to see? Houston? Seattle? Portland? Kansas City? Someone else entirely? Let us know in the comments section.