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Where EAST meets the Northwest

Abby Erceg (#6) of the North Carolina Courage. (AR Photo/Jan Landis)

Nadia Nadim (#9) of the Portland Thorns. (AR Photo/Jan Landis)

Mana Shim (#6) of the Portland Thorns. (AR Photo/Jan Landis)

Naho Kawasumi (#36) of the Seattle Reign. (AR Photo/Jan Landis)

Sam Kerr (#20) of Sky Blue FC.(AR Photo/Jan Landis)

Caprice Dydasco (#3) of the Washington Spirit. (AR Photo/Jan Landis)

From The Asian Reporter, V27, #21 (November 6, 2017), pages 8 & 13.

Asian talent shines in NWSL’s fifth season

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

When the Portland Thorns defeated the North Carolina Courage in this year’s National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) final, the match featured two teams that started the season with a pair of Asian players apiece. Across the NWSL, Asian representation continues to grow on offense and defense and between the posts, though knee injuries hampered the seasons of several.

Defenders Abby Erceg and Yuri Kawamura anchored the Courage back line, while the Thorns began the season with both midfielder Meleana "Mana" Shim and dangerous striker Nadia Nadim.

New Zealand’s most-capped women’s soccer player ever, Erceg, who has Maori heritage, has made her mark in the NWSL. She played for two years with the Chicago Red Stars before joining the Western New York Flash during the 2016 season in time to lead the team to its first NWSL championship.

When the Flash moved to North Carolina and became the Courage, Erceg followed them and has been an anchor on a defensive line that led the league in shutouts and fewest goals allowed. The only Courage defender with more minutes played than Erceg was Abby Dahlkemper, who played every minute for the Courage and was named the NWSL 2017 Defender of the Year.

This formidable pair should have been joined all season by Japan’s Kawamura, a standout fullback for the Japanese National Team and in Japan’s Nadeshiko League, but after just eight matches with the Courage, Kawamura suffered a season-ending knee injury. North Carolina is looking forward to seeing Kawamura and Erceg again frustrate opposing forwards in 2018.

On the other side of the pitch in the championship match, the Thorns will have to look elsewhere for Asian talent in 2018. Fan-favorite Shim, a Hawai‘i native, joined the club in 2013 during an open tryout and appeared in 74 matches for the Thorns, fourth-most in team history. But Shim became the odd player out on a talented club when the Thorns activated Tobin Heath from injured reserve near the end of the 2017 campaign. Växjö DFF in Sweden offered Shim a spot on their club in late August, so she and the Thorns agreed to part ways and she joined Växjö shortly thereafter.

Mana will be missed next season, as will Nadim. The Afghani native joined the Thorns before the 2016 season after nearly two seasons with Sky Blue FC. In 2016, Nadim led the Thorns with nine goals while assisting in three others. In 2017, she scored six goals and gave four assists, which were third best and second best on the team, respectively. Both stat lines are all the more impressive because Nadim played in only 18 of the Thorns 26 matches.

Nadim’s talent has not gone unrecognized, and Manchester City Women’s Football Club made her an offer the Thorns could not match. So Nadim, also a member of the Denmark Women’s National Team that nearly won the Euro 2017 tournament, will be playing with one of Europe’s top clubs next season, an acknowledgement of this Asian star’s incredible talent.

The NWSL team with the strongest Asian representation is Portland’s northern neighbor, the Seattle Reign. The squad features an outstanding Japanese tandem and a veteran goalkeeper with aboriginal roots who is among the best in the world.

Lydia Williams is that keeper. She joined the Houston Dash in 2016, enjoying a solid season in which she allowed 22 goals in 15 starts. That’s not surprising from a player who has anchored the Australian national team. But a midseason coaching change in 2017 pushed Williams to the bench, so the Dash traded her to Seattle in August.

Seattle already had a capable keeper in Haley Kopmeyer, but Williams started instead of Kopmeyer in three of the team’s four final matches, allowing just two goals. The Reign may make further moves to clarify Williams’s situation, but she certainly seems to have the edge to be Seattle’s starting keeper when 2018 begins.

Seattle midfielder Rumi Utsugi and forward Nahomi "Naho" Kawasumi both signed within two weeks of each other in June of 2016. Naho led all Seattle forwards in minutes played, and it’s easy to see why. Her six goals ranked third for the club, her nine assists were best in the league, and her combined total tied for third in the NWSL.

Utsugi led all Reign midfielders in passing accuracy, ranking second among the same group in minutes and games played. Seattle missed the playoffs this season with a fifth-place finish, and this Asian trio will be essential if they hope to get to the postseason in 2018.

Sky Blue FC has only one Asian player, but she is an all-time great. Often the team leader in scoring, forward Samantha Kerr was voted the 2017 NWSL Most Valuable Player during a season in which she shattered several NWSL scoring records.

The 24-year-old Kerr, an Australian with Indian heritage, began her career with the Western New York Flash, scoring six goals in 2013 before leading the team with nine goals in 2014. Despite missing time in 2015 and 2016 with Sky Blue, Kerr still led the team in scoring both seasons.

In 2017, Kerr went from being best on her team to best in the league. She scored 17 goals, setting a NWSL single-season record, and her 43 career goals is also the most ever.

Kerr’s 17 goals include the NWSL’s first-ever four-goal game, two hat tricks, and a brace — and, incredibly, none scored via penalty shot. Her career marks of 43 goals and 15 assists combine for 58 points, which is also the best in NWSL history. Sky Blue hopes the league’s most prodigious scorer ever can lift them to the playoffs in 2018.

In last year’s NWSL final, Hawai‘i native Caprice Dydasco of the Washington Spirit tore a ligament in her knee that kept her off the pitch for several months at the beginning of this season. She still played in 16 matches, but Washington allowed 48 goals, second-worst in the league, falling from 2016 finals runner-up to last place. They will need a full season of Dydasco if they hope to rebound in 2018.

Japanese native Yuki Nagasato of the Chicago Red Stars can sympathize with Dydasco. This past May, Chicago signed Nagasato, who has made her mark as a goal-scoring forward with top-notch clubs in Japan, Germany, and England. Soon after her signing was announced, however, doctors discovered a minor knee injury, and Nagasato returned to Japan to rehabilitate.

Nagasato returned in August, started three games for the club, and appeared in four more, notching a goal and two assists. The Red Stars made the playoffs this season, but suffered a last-minute loss to North Carolina. Next season, Nagasato should bolster a Chicago offense that could only muster 33 goals this season, sixth overall during the regular season.

The NWSL has already proven itself by being the longest-lasting U.S. professional women’s soccer league. And like other American professional leagues, it’s also proven that having stars with Asian roots is essential to that success.

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