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Where EAST meets the Northwest

Nadia Nadim of the Portland Thorns. (AR Photo/Jan Landis)

Jeon Ga Eul of the Western New York Flash. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim, File)

Meleana "Mana" Shim of the Portland Thorns. (AR Photo/Jan Landis)

Abby Erceg of the Western New York Flash. (AR Photo/Jan Landis)

From The Asian Reporter, V26, #9 (May 2, 2016), pages 7 & 8.

New and familiar Asian faces begin National Women’s Soccer League’s historic fourth season

By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter

Beginning its fourth season, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is entering historic territory. No other U.S. women’s soccer league has lasted more than three years, and the NWSL has not only survived, it has expanded, adding two teams since the league’s inception. Along the way, the NWSL has had many standout Asian players, and this year is no exception — with some new faces as well as familiar faces in new places.

The Western New York Flash brought on two Asian players this season to help lift them out of the NWSL doldrums of 2014 and 2015. One is a familiar face, defender Abby Erceg, who spent the past two years with the Chicago Red Stars, helping them reach the playoffs for the first time ever last season.

Erceg, a New Zealander of Maori descent, is the team captain for her country. She was the first player, male or female, to secure 100 national appearances for New Zealand’s national team. Erceg’s defensive skills are expected to bolster a Flash defense that allowed the second-most goals in the league last season.

To support the Flash offense, tied for third-worst in goals scored in 2015, the team signed a new face: midfielder Jeon Ga Eul, the NWSL’s first South Korean player. Jeon began her pro career in 2009, playing two seasons with Suwon FMC in South Korea’s WK-League. As the league’s leading scorer in 2010 with 10 goals, she won League MVP honors as she led her team to the championship.

The next year, Jeon moved to the Hyundai Steel Red Angels, where she scored 30 goals and assisted on 12 more in 98 league games. Flash general manager Rich Randall praised Jeon’s excellent passing skills and leadership, adding, "Her discipline and on-field vision will be a key piece to our success this year."

The Portland Thorns won the inaugural NWSL championship in 2013, fell to FC Kansas City in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, and missed the 2015 playoffs entirely after a sixth-place finish. To reverse that slide, the Thorns overhauled their roster in the offseason, making a flurry of moves that included trading for Nadia Nadim, the dynamic Afghani striker who escaped the Taliban before beginning her soccer career in Denmark.

In her more than 10 years in Denmark, Nadim has played for several Danish clubs, most recently Fortuna Hjørring, with whom she won a league title in 2014. After joining New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC mid-season in 2014, Nadim appeared in 24 games for them, scoring 13 goals and assisting on four more. Thorns coach Mark Parson cited her intelligence, goal-scoring ability, and passion as reasons that trading for her was "a huge accomplishment" for Portland.

Nadim will join Meleana "Mana" Shim, the midfielder from Hawai‘i who has gone up and down since earning a spot on the Thorns in 2013 through an open tryout. She won the Newcomer of the Year award in her first season, starting 17 matches before losing her starting spot in 2014. Shim regained that role in 2015 and has spent the offseason on loan to Iga FC of Japan’s Nadeshiko League, improving her conditioning and technical skills so that she and Nadim can return the Thorns to excellence.

When Nadim left Sky Blue, she left behind Samantha Kerr, an Australian forward with Indian roots. Kerr led New Jersey in scoring last season, despite playing in just nine of the team’s 20 matches due to her country’s participation in the Women’s World Cup in Canada. Kerr came to Sky Blue after also leading her previous team, the Flash, in scoring in 2014. Upon her arrival, Sky Blue head coach Jim Gabarra called Kerr "one of the most promising young players in the world" and said they had been watching her for some time.

Kerr wants to help Sky Blue climb from the bottom half of the league, where they have finished the past two seasons, a climb that has already begun in 2016. In their opening match, New Jersey defeated the two-time defending NWSL Shield winner, Seattle Reign FC, at Seattle’s Memorial Stadium, where they had previously been unbeaten.

Leading off the scoring in that match was Natasha Kai of Hawai‘i, the striker who has returned to Sky Blue after a long layoff playing rugby with the U.S. Women’s Sevens squad. Kai was a standout with the Philadelphia Independence and Sky Blue when those teams played in the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league, which folded in 2011.

Kai led her WPS teams to two different championship games, including Sky Blue’s victory in 2009 and the Philadelphia Independence’s loss to the Flash in 2011. Kai’s return to U.S. pro soccer will bring her veteran leadership and an energetic personality to the club.

Other Asian players to watch this season include Caprice Dydasco, a fullback from Hawai‘i whose role should grow with the Washington Spirit after she appeared in just six games in 2015. Two other standouts are goalkeeper Lydia Williams of the Houston Dash and striker Kyah Simon of the Boston Breakers, both Australian players with Aboriginal roots.

Williams is returning to NWSL following 46 appearances with the Australian women’s national team and several seasons with Canberra United in Australia’s Westfield W-League. Simon has played with the Breakers since 2013, but missed large chunks of time because of the Women’s World Cup and a knee surgery in 2014. In just seven games with the Breakers last season, Simon still managed to score twice and will be an exciting presence on the pitch in 2016. With so many players to follow and root for, Asian sports fans can look forward to another exciting NWSL season this year.

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