When Nadia Nadim played her first NWSL game, it was really probably already too late. It was July, 2014 and Nadim's new team, Sky Blue FC, was busy bouncing in and out of the playoff picture with eight games to play. Nadim's debut was going pretty horribly before she even took the field at the start of the second half; Sky Blue was already losing 4-0. FCKC would add another in stoppage time, handing Sky Blue what is still its worst-ever loss. Welcome to New Jersey.
But a week later, Nadim was back in the lineup, this time as a starter, and things went considerably better. Nadim registered a goal and an assist as Sky Blue beat Washington, 4-2. And that was just the start. Nadim would make six total appearances for Sky Blue in 2014, tallying seven goals and three assists in her limited time with the club. It was too little, too late though, and Sky Blue would still fall just short of the postseason, a single point off the top four.
Some 250 miles north of Yurcak Field, Alyssa Naeher was struggling through another season with the Boston Breakers. Where Sky Blue's season had felt full of possibility until the very end, Boston's had gone poorly almost from the start. The Breakers won just twice through the first ten games of 2014, and only managed six wins through the entire season. Boston was terrible defensively. Naeher, the team's starting goalkeeper for all 24 games, had the most saves of anyone in the league (106), but also allowed the most goals (53). She won Goalkeeper of the Year and was named to the league Best XI at season's end, but all that was probably little consolation as Boston finished eighth in the then nine-team league. Only the expansion Dash was worse, and only by two points.
Where Nadim had joined Sky Blue with high hopes but ultimately not enough time, Naeher had already long been mired in something that was quickly going from bad to worse.
Both Boston and Sky Blue had had respectable 2013 seasons. Naeher, who started her career in Boston in 2010 as a member of the WPS-era Breakers, helped guide the team to a fifth place finish. Sky Blue had made it to the playoffs as the fourth-place finisher, before getting bounced out by Western NY in the semifinal. But by 2015, two years removed from respectable, things weren't looking great for either team. Boston's best hope then was simply that somehow, some other team would be worse. Sky Blue's was Nadim, signed for a full season. Neither worked out.
Last season for Boston went like this: four wins, three draws, 13 losses. A league-worst minus-21 goal differential and a last place finish. To make matters worse for Boston, Naeher had broken into the USWNT picture, at least peripherally. Eventually, she'd head to the World Cup in Canada as Hope Solo's backup. That left her available for just 12 of the season's 20 games. Boston lost nine of those 12 games, and Naeher, despite relatively few appearances, still finished second in the league in saves, with 65.
Nadim's first full season in New Jersey didn't go much better. After her standout performance at the end of the 2014 season, Sky Blue had high hopes for the Denmark international in 2015. Maybe too high. Nadim never quite recaptured the magic of the previous year, finishing 2015 with just six goals and one assist in 18 games. Sky Blue did only moderately better than Boston, finishing in eighth.
Now, a year removed from those disappointing seasons, there is new hope - and new life - for both Naeher and Nadim. In November, Boston traded Naeher to Chicago. In January, Sky Blue sent Nadim to Portland.
Both are flourishing in their new homes, and both are about to make it to the postseason. For their respective teams, it's nothing new, but for both Naeher and Nadim, it will be a first for their NWSL careers.
In Portland, Nadim is having the season she was supposed to in New Jersey a year ago. The latest of her exploits came Sunday night at Providence Park, where the Thorns beat Boston 5-1. Nadim was involved in all five of Portland's goals, scoring three, claiming the assist on one, and as an integral part of another with a dummy as the ball rolled through the Boston box.
That's eight goals and two assists on the season now for Nadim. She's also now the Thorns leading scorer, and just one off Kealia Ohai's league-leading nine. But beyond her actual numbers, Nadim has done two other things for Portland, too. First, as a member of the Denmark WNT, she didn't go to the Olympics, which was huge for a Thorns team that had its roster ravaged by national team call-ups all summer.
The second is that just as she did in New Jersey two years ago, Nadim's made everyone around her better, too. Not that someone like Christine Sinclair needs to be better, but she did need a strike partner up to the task. Over the years, Portland's offense has often looked somewhere between "not on the same page" and "reading totally different books." But with Nadim, the entire thing seems to have come together in a way it hasn't in a long time. And Sinclair seems more comfortable than she has in a while, too. It was a similar situation at Sky Blue in 2014, where Kelley O'Hara and Maya Hayes both instantly seemed like different players when Nadim was inserted into the lineup.
Portland has three games remaining, starting with a meeting with the Dash on Wednesday night. The Thorns are currently in second, and four points behind first place Washington. They are also, a year after not making the playoffs, on the brink of clinching a postseason berth. And yes, there are a lot of parts to Portland's success this season, but Nadim is undeniably a big one.
Chicago is the team right below Portland in the table, just three points back of the Thorns. The Red Stars, like the Thorns, are on the brink booking their ticket to the postseason. But unlike Portland, Chicago has never been a team that's gone much for big names, outside signings, or even very many trades. That's why it initially came as a bit of shock when they acquired Naeher last fall.
It made sense that Chicago would be in the market for a goalkeeper though. Karina LeBlanc had retired, and despite keeping backup Michelle Dalton around, the Red Stars needed a new No. 1. Naeher had already started to break into the USWNT picture, but behind Solo (and sometimes Ashlyn Harris) on the depth chart, she'd seen only minimal game time. Playing on a team like Chicago, one that actually had a chance at something good, could only help. Naeher is, of course, now in the sort of bizarre position of being the USWNT's de facto starter since Sunil Gulati and friends sent Solo to think about what she's done for the next six months.
The trade was also a good deal for Boston, who got Whitney Engen in return. Remember this was a Breakers team that finished two of the previous three seasons with the worst goals-against numbers in the league. A USWNT defender is a pretty good get if you're desperate defensively (it has not helped).
Naeher has again seen only limited time this season thanks to USWNT commitments, appearing in only 11 of Chicago's 17 games so far. But in the games she's played, the Red Stars have lost just twice. Naeher is also tied for the most clean sheets in the league (5), and has one of the lowest goals allowed numbers (10).
Next up for Chicago is a Wednesday-Sunday home-and-home with FCKC Kansas City, before wrapping up the season with a meeting with Washington. Barring some kind of meltdown, the Red Stars will be heading to the postseason for the second straight year, but where in the top four they'll finish is still very much up in the air. Western NY currently trails Chicago by just one point.
There is a very good chance that these two players and their respective teams could face each other in playoffs. If the season ended right now, Portland-Chicago would one of the first round matchups. One of them, probably, will have to end the other's season. Before that though, there are still three more regular season games. Three more chances for us to see just how much good a fresh start can do sometimes.
Boston Breakers 1 - 3 Houston Dash
Washington Spirit 1 - 1 Western NY Flash
Houston Dash 4 - 2 Orlando Pride