It's back. A host of Westfield W-League stars will be in action as the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season kicks-off in the US this weekend.
Nine clubs will battle it out to be crowned the best women’s team in the USA, with everyone trying to topple defending champions North Carolina Courage, who lost just once in 26 games in 2018.
With little more than a month left until Ante Milicic selects his squad to go to the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, it is crucial for the Westfield Matildas hopefuls to show their best form in the early rounds of the NWSL.
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Having just completed an intense training camp in the USA, as well as playing a friendly against the world’s No.1-ranked national team, the Aussie girls should be primed and ready for a big start to the campaign.
Here’s a look at the four match-ups this weekend…
North Carolina Courage v Chicago Red Stars (April 14, 9am AEST)
It's a tough start to the season for Sam Kerr and her Red Stars as they travel to the home of the defending champions.
The Courage swept all before them on their way to the title last year, completing the most dominant season in NWSL history.
That included eliminating the Red Stars in the semi-finals – for a second straight year – with a 2-0 win in Portland.
But any team with Kerr in it is a chance to get a win. The Westfield Matildas and Perth Glory skipper has finished with the NWSL Golden Boot for the last two seasons and her presence makes the Red Stars genuine challengers for the title.
There’s a real Perth Glory flavour to Chicago’s side, with the likes of Alyssa Mautz, Nikki Stanton and Katie Naughton all looking to transfer their Westfield W-League form to the NWSL.
Houston Dash v Reign FC (April 15, 8am AEST)
This is a fixture the Reign have dominated throughout NWSL history, having only ever lost once against the Dash.
But that defeat came last season, through a stoppage-time goal from Veronica Latsko, who completed the recent Westfield W-League season with Adelaide United.
Latsko is back with the Dash for this season and will spearhead an attack that also features Westfield Matildas star Kyah Simon, although injury means Simon is unlikely to feature in this clash.
Houston also have Clare Polkinghorne at the back, and the experienced defender is set to be one of four Aussies on the pitch at BBVA Compass Stadium.
Melbourne City's Steph Catley and Lydia Williams are both back with the Reign for another season, and will be joined by their clubmate and Westfield Matildas midfielder Elise Kellond-Knight.
Orlando Pride v Portland Thorns (April 15, 7am AEST)
The Pride and the Thorns head into the new season as two of the leading contenders to take the fight to North Carolina after assembling impressive squads.
Westfield Matildas duo Alanna Kennedy and Emily van Egmond are both back for another season in Orlando, where they were two constants in the Pride’s midfield in 2018.
Orlando spent much of last season in the top four only to fall away badly late in the campaign – including four straight defeats – to finish seventh.
Playing at home in the season-opener, and with Westfield W-League attackers Rachel Hill and Chioma Ubogagu also in their side, the Pride will be eyeing a strong start.
But Portland have been perennial contenders for the last few years. And they look even stronger in 2019.
Caitlin Foord, who joined the Thorns midway through last season, and Ellie Carpenter have both returned, along with fit-again Hayley Raso, whose attacking thrust was sorely missed at the back end of last season.
Washington Spirit v Sky Blue FC (April 14, 9am AEST)
These sides will be looking for major improvement in 2019 after finishing as the NWSL’s bottom two clubs last year.
But they have a lot of ground to make up considering they managed just three wins between them from 48 games.
Scoring goals was Washington’s biggest issue. They found the net just 12 times in their 24 matches – nine fewer than the next lowest scorers, who they face at the weekend. That is part of the reason why they have signed Westfield Matildas duo Chloe Logarzo and Amy Harrison.
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Logarzo is likely to play in one of the attacking roles for Richie Burke’s side, while the versatile Harrison will bolster the midfield.
Sky Blue FC’s issue was at the other end, conceding a league-high 52 goals in 2018.
While it is only the opening round of the season, each of these clubs will hope a victory can be the start of a far more successful campaign this time around.
Not in action: Utah Royals