NWSL: Projected 2017 regular-season finishes

Off the field, the NWSL has seen a lot of change with the champion Western New York Flash moving to North Carolina, Commissioner Jeff Plush stepping down and the league finding a new media partner in Lifetime. But on the field, much has stayed the same. The Portland Thorns, the 2016 Shield winners, North Carolina Courage and Chicago Red Stars are the teams to beat in our projected 2017 finishes.

1. Portland Thorns. The Thorns won their first regular-season title in 2016, but the NWSL Shield did not translate into postseason success as they were upset by the Flash, 4-3, in a wild overtime game in the semifinals.

Keeper Michelle Betos joined Norwegian club Valerenga and midfielder Becca Moros moved to FC Kansas City, but otherwise the Thorns are loaded with MVP candidate Tobin Heath leading a U.S. contingent that includes national team regulars Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Sonnett, Lindsey Horan and Allie Long plus Best XI defender Emily Menges.

The international group features Dagny Brynjarsdottir (Iceland), Amandine Henry (France), Nadia Nadim (Denmark), Christine Sinclair (Canada) and Hayley Raso (Australia). Ashleigh Sykes will join fellow Matilda Raso in June.

Britt Eckerstrom, who played one game for the Flash in 2016, will challenge Adrianna Franch for the starting spot in goal.

2. NC Courage.  Paul Riley orchestrated one of the great coaching jobs in U.S. women's pro soccer history when he led the young Flash to the 2016 NWSL title.

Lynn Williams was named the NWSL MVP after leading the league with 11 goals and five assists. The Flash had four of the top seven picks in the 2015 College Draft and all were starters on the championship team: Abby Dahlkemper, Samantha Mewis, Jaelene Hinkle and Williams. Mewis and Williams parlayed their 2016 success into spots on the women's national team.

Only one starter from the 2016 final -- Australian Alanna Kennedy -- did not move with the team to North Carolina. By the time the move to North Carolina was announced, Riley, who's suspended for the first two games of the 2017 season, had already signed Brazilians Rosana and Debinha for the 2017 season. The Courage has since added Japanese veteran Yuri Kawamura.

3. Chicago Red Stars. The Red Stars had seven players -- Arin Gilliland and Christen Press on the Best XI and Alyssa Naeher, Julie Ertz, Casey Short, Danielle Colaprico and Vanessa DiBernardo on the Second XI -- make the 2016 all-league teams.

They are among 17 players back in 2017 from the team that finished 9-5-6 in 2016 and returned to the playoffs for the second year in a row.

The newcomer to watch is Summer Green, who sat out 2016 but had a strong preseason and could add another scoring threat.

4. Orlando Pride. The Pride finished ninth with a 6-13-1 record in its expansion season, but it should be much improved, acquiring Alanna Kennedy from Carolina and Ali Krieger from Washington to bolster the backline.

The big addition, though, is Brazilian great Marta, who signed a two-year deal with a club option for a third season. She won't be available for the Pride's opener at Portland on Saturday, but she's a key addition to an attack that scored only 20 goals in 20 games in 2016.

The working plan is that Alex Morgan will return in June after finishing up her season with French club Lyon. She had only four goals in 15 games in 2016, so the Pride is counting on Marta's arrival to create more opportunities for Morgan.

5. Seattle Reign. After winning back-to-back NWSL Shields in 2014 and 2015, the Reign slumped to 8-6-6, which was only good enough for fifth place in 2016. Keeper Hope Solo was gone after the Olympics, and Megan Rapinoe was limited to five appearances after returning from knee surgery.

In the offseason, the Reign transferred Scottish international Kim Little (2014 NWSL MVP and 2014 and 2015 Best XI pick) and team leader Keelin Winters, Kendall Fletcher and top scorer Manon Melis (seven goals) retired, leaving head coach and general manager Laura Harvey with four big holes to fill.

The biggest offseason move was the acquisition of Christine Nairn joined the Reign from Washington for Havana Solaun and three college draft picks.

6. FC Kansas City. The Blues won back-to-back NWSL championships in 2014 and 2015 but couldn't keep the team together. Defenders Leigh Ann Robinson and Amy LePeilbet and midfielder Lauren Holiday retired, while Amy Rodriguez and offseason acquisition Sydney Leroux sat out the 2016 season on pregnancy leave.

To make matters worse, it said goodbye to another veteran, Jen Buczkowski, who retired in May after starting every game it played and winning back-to-back NWSL titles. Those losses were followed by the international retirement of Heather O'Reilly, who has since joined Arsenal Ladies.

Who's left from the team that finished 7-8-5? U.S. national team captain Becky Sauerbrunn will lead the defense, while top scorer Shea Groom (eight goals) will join A-Rod and Leroux in the attack.

7. Houston Dash. The Dash has finished ninth (last), fifth and eighth in its first three seasons and yet to attain the .500 mark. Could this be the year that Coach Randy Waldrum's women make the playoffs?

Carli Lloyd, playing at Manchester City in England, won't be available until June but she only played seven games in 2016. The Dash's chances will likely depend on getting another big season from Kealia Ohai (11 goals).

Of concern is the knee injury Morgan Brian suffered playing for the USA against France in March. She won't play Saturday against Chicago

8. Sky Blue FC. Sky Blue FC started 6-4-4 but won only one of its last six games and missed out on the playoffs by six points with a 7-8-5 record.

Former U.S. women's national team captain Christie Rampone returns for final season at the age of 41. She played well enough in 2016 to earn Second XI honors.

Rampone will groom as many as three rookie starters in the back as Sky Blue took Clemson goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan and USC defenders Kayla Mills and Mandy Freeman with its first three picks in the 2017 College Draft.

9. Washington Spirit. Offseason moves and injuries have decimated the Spirit, which finished 12-5-3 in 2016 and lost to the Courage in the final after leading in overtime with seconds to play.

Krieger wanted out and was traded to Orlando. Diana Matheson and Nairn were traded to Seattle and Megan Oyster moved to Boston. The big loss was Crystal Dunn, who signed with Chelsea Ladies in England. Unlike Morgan at Orlando and Lloyd at Houston, she won't be back in 2017. Add to those losses: goalkeeper Kelsey Wys and defender Caprice Dydasco, both sidelined with major knee injuries.

Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra termed the trades all part of an effort to build for the future. In the meantime, holdovers Joanna Lohman (34) and Toni Huster (28) will be asked to lead the Spirit in midfield.

10. Boston Breakers. The plus side of finishing last for the second year in a row (3-15-2 record) was that the Breakers had the No. 1 pick in the College Draft and took Wisconsin midfielder Rose Lavelle, who has looked great for the U.S. national team. Boston also had picks 3-8-9 and used them to sign Morgan Andrews, Ifeoma Onumonu and Margaret Purce.

Only eight players are back from 2016 as Coach Matt Beard has made wholesale changes. Five players were signed from European teams: defender Amanda Frisbie, midfielders Tiffany Weimer and Rosie White and forwards Emilie Haavi and Adriana Leon. (Frisbie, Weimer and Leon all have NWSL experience.)

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