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Where EAST meets the Northwest

EASTERN TALENT. The 2019 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) championship game was a classic matchup between a veteran playoff club and a new arrival to the league finals. The game ended as expected, with the North Carolina Courage prevailing over the Chicago Red Stars.

Pictured is Yuki Nagasato (#12) competing in the 2019 NWSL championship match against the North Carolina Courage. (AP Photo/Karl B. DeBlaker)

Pictured is Sam Kerr (#20) playing in the 2019 NWSL semifinal game against the Portland Thorns. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)

From The Asian Reporter, V29, #21 (November 4, 2019), page 11.

Asian stars lead their teams to the NWSL championship match

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

This year’s National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) championship game was a classic matchup between a veteran playoff club and a new arrival to the league finals. The game ended as expected, with the North Carolina Courage winning its second title in three years, crushing the upstart Chicago Red Stars, 4-0. Across the league, however, Asian NWSL players were all veterans, as teams continue to search for fresh eastern talent.

Asian players graced the rosters of three of the four playoff teams this year — everyone except our Portland Thorns. Though the Thorns have a very international roster, they haven’t had Asian players on the roster since Mana Shim and Nadia Nadim left the team in 2017, and Sandra Yu was drafted in 2018, but struggled with injuries and retired.

That lack of eastern talent might have been one of the reasons Portland lost their semifinal game against the Red Stars, who feature two of the most talented Asian players on the turf today. And like all great players, Sam Kerr and Yuki Nagasato make each other better when they play together.

Australian Kerr, whose father has Indian roots, joined the NWSL’s Western New York Flash in 2013 and played for two seasons. The promising forward then joined Sky Blue FC in 2015. She quickly ascended to the top in 2017, setting the league record for goals in both a season (17) and a game (4) and winning league Most Valuable Player honors.

After that breakout season, Sky Blue traded Kerr to the Red Stars, who had reached the playoffs the previous three seasons but failed to advance. That first season with Chicago, Kerr scored 16 goals, becoming the first player to lead the NWSL in scoring for two straight seasons.

Chicago again reached the playoffs in 2018 and lost, lighting a fire under Kerr. This season, she took home the Golden Boot for the third straight season, setting a new record with 18 goals and again earning league MVP honors, becoming the first NWSL player to win the award twice.

Of Kerr’s 18 goals this season, seven were assisted by Nagasato. Nagasato won championships in Japan and the Champions League before signing with the Red Stars in 2017. She didn’t become a full-time player until 2018, when she was able to show her full skillset, notching seven assists, second-best in the league, and scoring four goals.

This year Nagasato did even better, leading the Red Stars in minutes played while scoring eight goals and leading the league with eight assists. She joined Kerr as a finalist for the NWSL MVP award. Though they failed to win it all, hopefully this dynamic Asian duo will be back to the final again if they stick together.

Chicago’s finals opponent, the North Carolina Courage, has a singular defensive Asian talent who has helped the team become perennial championship contenders. Including their previous incarnation as the Western New York Flash, the Courage has reached the championship match for the fourth straight year, the only NWSL team ever to do so.

One constant in all four appearances has been defender Abby Erceg, a New Zealander with Maori heritage whose NWSL career began with Chicago in 2014. After two seasons with the Red Stars, Erceg was traded to the Flash, and she led them to their first NWSL title that same year.

Her importance to the team’s defense is plainly evident. In the two seasons before Erceg’s arrival, the Flash gave up a total of 72 goals, with a cumulative goal differential of just seven. The club improved its goal differential in each of the next three seasons with Erceg. Last season, the Courage set league records with 17 goals against and a goal differential of 36.

To reach the final, the Courage defeated Reign FC, until recently the league leader in Asian talent. Then the team traded Nahomi Kawasumi to Sky Blue before this season, reducing its eastern contingent to two.

Kawasumi is nearing retirement, but she has had a very good NWSL career. The Japanese midfielder has played parts of five NWSL seasons, peaking in 2017, when she started 22 games and led the league with nine assists. Since then, she has transitioned to a bench role, starting a total of 21 games over the past two seasons and notching a total of four assists.

Kawasumi left two Asian stars at Reign FC who may also be leaving the league. Lydia Williams, another Australian with indigenous roots, began this season as the starting goalkeeper. But she never returned from her World Cup duties, electing for season-ending surgery to correct a nagging ankle problem. In her absence, Casey Murphy locked down the keeper’s job with a great season, so Williams may be looking elsewhere for a starting role.

Rumi Utsugi, the Reign’s defensive midfielder, also had a down year. Utsugi joined the Reign in 2016 and had her best year in 2017, starting in 18 of her 20 appearances, scoring once and collecting two assists. But injuries kept her off the pitch last season, and she started just 15 games, scoring once.

This year, Utsugi lost playing time to a back injury and national team duty for Team Japan at the Women’s World Cup. As a result, she started only four matches, was a substitute in a fifth, but still managed to record one assist.

The future remains uncertain for Utsugi and Kawasumi, and few Asian replacements seem to be waiting in the wings.

Also playing with Sky Blue FC is defender Caprice Dydasco of Hawai‘i. Dydasco was drafted by the Washington Spirit in 2015 and played 4,342 minutes with the club in four seasons. Following her trade to Sky Blue in early 2019, the UCLA graduate started in all 23 matches this year, logging 2,028 minutes.

Among non-playoff teams, the Houston Dash was the only other club rostering a player with Asian roots.

Australian forward Kyah Simon, who became the first indigenous player to score at the Women’s World Cup, joined the NWSL’s Boston Breakers in 2013 and played for three seasons. In 2017, she returned to the league, joining the Dash. During the past two seasons, Simon has mostly come off the bench, picking up 15 starts in 25 appearances and scoring twice with two assists each year.

Beyond Kerr, Nagasato, and Erceg, the NWSL is light on marquee Asian talent. Asian-American sports fans are hoping the league can attract more talent from the east. Otherwise, there may not be many NWSL players to watch in a few seasons, whether their teams make the playoffs or not.

Editor’s note: At press time, reports surfaced that Kerr is headed to Europe next season. No official announcement has yet been made.

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