Change is the operative word in Boston entering the 2014 NWSL season.
Gone is Sydney Leroux, the U.S. women’s national team forward who accounted for 11 of the team’s 35 goals last year.
Lisa Cole is not a part of the organization for the first time since the reincarnation of the Breakers in 2009. She served as an assistant for three seasons in WPS before taking over head coaching duties and guiding the team through WPSL Elite and most of the first season of the NWSL before being fired in August.
And gone is Kia McNeill, who started 21 of 22 games at center back last season. She won’t play this year in order to focus full-time on her studies and job as assistant coach at Boston College.
So the Breakers move forward with coach Tom Durkin, Australia striker Lisa De Vanna – acquired from Sky Blue FC – and hometown acquisition Kristie Mewis, the young U.S. international who can play left back or higher on the wing.
The question for the Breakers – and the challenge for Durkin and player/assistant coach Cat Whitehill – is fitting all the pieces together and making them click. Both Durkin and Whitehill admit that it will take some time for Boston to get on the same page this season. With injuries, rookies getting to camp late and national team call-ups, the first time all the Breakers will be together is in Seattle for the opener on April 13.
“I don’t think we’ll get to really full speed until the second, third, fourth game of the season when we have all of our players for a while,” Durkin said.
De Vanna will be expected to bear some of the scoring burden with the departure of Leroux, but Durkin envisions four or five players stepping up in the goal scoring department.
“We didn’t want to lose (Leroux),” he said. “She’s going to be a hard player to replace. She gave us that breakaway element. She scored 11 goals – Lisa scored five, but I think she can score 12.”
Lianne Sanderson will need to build off of her five goals and seven assists in 2013, and Heather O’Reilly is expected to play in a more advanced role in a formation that’s expected to look a lot like a 4-3-3. There’s also rookie Mollie Pathman, who could push for a starting spot as a third forward.
More than anything, though, the Brazilian-born and U.S.-raised Durkin is preaching possession and high pressure defensively, something Whitehill welcomes.
“Last year we were very direct,” Whitehill said. “We lived and died by the counterattack with Syd’s speed up front. That kind of is why we were really successful in some games and not in other games.”
Alyssa Naeher in net continues to get looks in U.S. national team camps and should be solid for the Breakers. And the midfield is clearly the team’s strongest unit, with O’Reilly’s dangerous play, Sanderson’s technical ability and Joanna Lohman’s calming presence. The plan is to play Kristie Mewis – whose time in preseason has been minimal with a sprained ankle – on the left wing.
Undoubtedly, the back line is the most fluid area of the field for Boston, with the major question mark revolving around who will play center back alongside Whitehill. Courtney Jones is currently the front-runner and likely starter there for opening day. Jones is versatile enough to play almost anywhere on the field, and she played alongside Whitehill in WPSL Elite. Her former coach at UNC, Anson Dorrance, recommended to Durkin that Jones could be a good center back option in a pinch.
But the fact remains: McNeill isn’t easy to replace.
“No matter what it is going to take a number of games, no matter who we play, for the two center backs to get the understanding that Cat had with Kia,” Durkin said. “We’re just going to have to be very supportive of whoever plays there.”
Boston finished fifth in 2013 as the first team outside of the playoffs, but they were level on points with a Chicago team that has gotten considerably better on paper but will have to wait until mid-season for some major reinforcements in Christen Press and Melissa Tancredi. Seattle Reign FC, seventh place finishers in 2013, now look like playoff material. In short, it could be hard for the Breakers to find themselves still playing in late August, but parity is a trademark of the NWSL, so Boston will have opportunities.