Silly season is over for the global transfer market, but it's just getting started in the National Women's Soccer League.
It's true of the standings, which feature an NWSL Shield race too close to call between a handful of teams -- only for the standings to not really matter come playoff time.
NWSL awards season is also upon us, a time of year filled with debate and, at times, disbelief. So infamous is the NWSL's history with awards that in 2019, players widely denounced the final selections voted on by various stakeholders (which, it should be noted, featured a 50% weighted vote for players). Becky Sauerbrunn was named defender of the year despite missing almost half the season due to U.S. national team duties in a World Cup year. She proceeded to respectfully state that she had no business winning the award.
In 2016, the NWSL First XI featured four forwards, because why not have a hypothetical team play a 4-2-4?
Anything could happen with these awards -- especially this year. From a thrilling Golden Boot race to an unprecedented rookie class setting records and driving their teams to the playoffs, this NWSL awards season is like a multiple-choice test in which each category could feature an "all of the above" answer.
That is no fun, so we're here to make the hard choices for you to kick off all the heated debate and allow you to yell at us first. The caveat, of course, is that there is a month left in the regular season, and things could change. As it stands, this is what the race looks like for NWSL awards, both the real ones and the ones we wish they handed out.
Most Valuable Player: Alex Morgan, FW, San Diego Wave FC
Eleven years ago, when Alex Morgan first stepped on a field as a professional, it was clear that she was destined for a special career. Since then, she has played in three World Cup finals, winning two of them, won an Olympic gold medal and made her case among the best in a historic program.
At the club level? She's never won an individual award. Even that rookie season in the now defunct WPS, when she helped the Western New York Flash win a title, Morgan lost out on Rookie of the Year to Christen Press. Morgan is yet to even be named to a First XI team in the NWSL. That changes this year.
At 33, Morgan is in the best form of her life and carrying San Diego through the best expansion season the NWSL has ever witnessed. Over half the Wave's goals -- 15 of 29 -- have been scored by Morgan. While five of them have been from the penalty spot, that takes nothing away from both her importance to her team's success and the great form she is in -- consistently, it should be noted, which has always been the knock on her club performances.
There is a tired argument that Morgan is an old-school, one-dimensional player who only works well in direct systems of play. That is the opinion of someone who has not watched her play in the last half-decade as she developed into a back-to-goal, link-up player who can draw out defenses. No doubt, San Diego's style suits her well.
Morgan has three games remaining to chase down Sam Kerr's NWSL regular-season record 18 goals in a season, and Kerr did that in a 24-game season (vs. 22 this season). Morgan's 1.00 goals per 90 minutes is better than Kerr's 0.87 from that historic 2019 campaign (none of Kerr's were from the penalty spot), per FBRef. Kerr was the indisputable MVP that year. Morgan has stiff competition for the award this year, but her consistent dominance, combined with her importance to her team, tips the award in her favor.
Also in the running: Mallory Pugh, FW, Chicago Red Stars; Sophia Smith, FW, Portland Thorns FC; Maria Sanchez, FW Houston Dash
A good sign for the U.S. women's national team is that the MVP race prominently features its three starting forwards: Morgan, Mallory Pugh, and Sophia Smith.
Pugh has, by a healthy margin, the best per-90 goals plus assists (minus PKs) mark among the three of them (1.19), per FBRef, and the most diverse contributions, with eight goals and five assists. She has also played the fewest number of games among the three. A late surge from the Chicago Red Stars forward combined with a Wave collapse could tip this award in Pugh's favor, but timing is tight.
Smith, like Pugh, is a player who looks untouchable in her best moments. Give her space in the open field, and defenders are toast. She is the lead scorer on a team that scores goals for fun. Maria Sanchez is currently second in the league in chances created, per TruMedia and Stats Perform, and perhaps the best addition of the year for any team.
Most Improved Player: Lo'eau LaBonta, MF, Kansas City Current
The NWSL would be wise to make an official award of this, whether it's called most improved of comeback player, opening it up to injury returns.
Let's talk about Kansas City Current midfielder Lo'eau LaBonta. Her rise from serviceable midfielder who had never tallied more than two goals or two assists in six previous NWSL regular seasons, to a six-goal (yes, five are from the penalty spot), four-assist attacking midfielder operating as the engine of the most in-form team in the league, is remarkable and worthy of recognition. She's among the league leaders in big chances created, per TruMedia and Stats Perform.
Oh, and she has done it while bring the fun factor (nothing new about that) with viral celebrations. Her fake-hamstring-injury-turned-joking-twerk should win Celebration of the Year, too.
Also in the running: Elizabeth Ball, DF, Kansas City Current; Tatumn Milazzo, DF, Chicago Red Stars
Lo'eau LaBonta had us worried there for a second. 😅 pic.twitter.com/VROBFrdz7A— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) August 20, 2022
Coach of the Year: Casey Stoney, San Diego Wave FC
Realistically, this is a three-coach race each for very different reasons. Casey Stoney prevails for a trifecta of factors: building a winning expansion team from scratch, contending for the NWSL Shield, and building a clear team identity that is hard to break down.
The identity element is what puts Stoney over the top for the award. Does San Diego like to play direct at times? Of course. That is part of Stoney's total-defending mentality. Defend well, limit the opponent's chances, and strike in transition. Where other coaches from abroad have come to the NWSL thinking they could rewrite the formula and completely failed, Stoney adapted to a style that already suits her and got her entire team to buy in.
Stoney has managed to successfully make some tough calls, too, like limiting playing time for veterans Abby Dahlkemper, Sofia Jakobsson and Jodie Taylor in favor of better system fits or players in form. From roster-building to tactics and identity, Stoney gets the nod here.
Also in the running: Rhian Wilkinson, Portland Thorns FC; Matt Potter, Kansas City Current; Freya Coombe, Angel City FC
Rhian Wilkinson took over a Portland Thorns squad who had been built entirely in the vision of Mark Parsons for the past decade. Yes, the talent was there at her disposal already, but there were major absences to address (Lindsey Horan on loan to Lyon, Crystal Dunn on maternity leave) and ongoing unrest off the field with club management that could have affected results any number of ways. Wilkinson rewrote the team's identity with a 3-4-3 to start the season and then shifted back to a 4-2-3-1 on the fly in the summer as teams figure out Portland. She did all this in her first season as a head coach.
Matt Potter took Kansas City from the worst team in the NWSL last season to a Shield contender currently riding a 13-game unbeaten run and sitting atop the table. The Current operate on fine margins: they have a +2 goal difference and all nine of their victories this regular season have been by one goal.
Freya Coombe also deserves mention in this conversation for exceeding expectations. Angel City looked awful during the preseason NWSL Challenge Cup, but Coombe figured out a system and lineup that works and stuck to it with remarkable consistency. She got the best out of players like midfielders Cari Roccaro and Savannah McCaskill. She also successfully identified natural forwards Jasmyne Spencer and Tyler Lussi as right-backs, a position at which really didn't have other options.
Best Interim Coaching Job: Sarah Lowdon and Juan Carlos Amoros, Houston Dash
Yes, the NWSL has yet again had enough mid-season coaching turnover (for non-sporting reasons) that this made-up category has multiple, legitimate candidates. Tip the caps to the pair of interim bosses for the Houston Dash, a team that looked lifeless during the Challenge Cup and destined to continue its run of never making the playoffs.
Sarah Lowdon took over as acting head coach on the eve of the regular-season opener, upon the news that James Clarkson had been suspended based on findings from a league investigation. Lowdon got Houston on track, even with some unconventional moves like playing attacking midfielder Maria Sanchez as a wing-back.
Juan Carlos Amoros stepped in as interim coach in July and won his first three games (with Lowdon as first assistant, akin to how he co-coached Tottenham for years) and the Dash are now two points off the top of the table. There's work to be done to not miss the playoffs again, but Houston is exceeding expectations as it stands.
Also in the running: Seb Hines, Orlando Pride
Orlando looked like a team left for dead in the late spring. It wasn't that the Pride finally parting ways with all of Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger, and Sydney Leroux was surprising -- the perception was that there was no plan in place for the future. New head coach Amanda Cromwell and assistant Sam Greene were then placed on administrative leave for alleged retaliation in June, when the Pride lost 5-0 and 6-0 to the Dash and Thorns, respectively. Those were rock-bottom results.
Following that 6-0 loss to Portland, Seb Hines guided the Pride to a seven-game unbeaten streak, including impressive wins over Houston and San Diego. Orlando almost certainly won't make the playoffs, but there's an ironic level of progress being shown under Hines.
Best Goal: Mallory Pugh, Chicago Red Stars vs. Orlando Pride, June 13
There are some tough choices among a lot of brilliant goals, but this strike from Mallory Pugh was pure class: inch-perfect precision and a goal from just about nothing, surrounded by defenders.
Rookie of the Year: Naomi Girma, DF, San Diego Wave FC
This is likely to be the most controversial pick, especially as it would lean my official ballot heavily toward San Diego. Let me state this right up top: This award, more than any other, has four would-be winners that I would consider correct answers. At some point, you must make a choice. This is Naomi Girma's case:
I'd argue that San Diego is the best defensive team in the league (they are one off the best goals-against figure) and that back line is anchored by Girma. That defensive record is as integral to the Wave's success as Morgan's goals (and Stoney, a former center-back for England, plays a role, too). Girma is the one, consistent piece of that back four which has changed full-back midseason and even changed her center-back partner mid-summer. It's easier to quantify success of offensive players, so let's add some numbers to Girma's case as a top defender in the league and an incredibly impressive rookie performance:
Girma leads the league in possessions won in the defensive third of the field (98), per TruMedia and Stats Perform. She also ranks fifth in the entire league in defensive interventions and sixth in clearances. She is not just great for a rookie -- she's already among the best defenders in a league that generally lacks greatness in that position. For these reasons, Girma gets my vote.
There is precedent for a team sweeping awards, too. In the inaugural NWSL season, in 2013, FC Kansas City representatives took home MVP, Golden Boot, Coach of the Year, Defender of the Year and Rookie of the Year in a clean sweep.
Also in the running: Diana Ordoñez, FW, North Carolina Courage; Sam Coffey, MF, Portland Thorns; Savannah DeMelo, MF, Racing Louisville
The popular vote will almost certainly go to Diana Ordoñez, whose 11 goals this season are tied with Smith for second-most in the league and are the most ever scored by an NWSL rookie. I will have no problem if that happens -- she is plenty deserving. Less likely to win but equally worthy are Sam Coffey and Savannah DeMelo, rookies who stepped into crucial central midfield roles and thrived to the point that they earned their first U.S. national team call-ups.
Coffey is Portland's reliable No. 6, even more impressive considering she was an attacking midfielder in college. DeMelo might not get as much attention playing for a struggling Racing Louisville team, but she leads the league in fouls suffered and, per TruMedia and Stats Perform, in chances created. She has also scored some stunning free kicks in big moments this season.
The NWSL has several stars for the future among these four.
Most Memorable Game: Angel City FC 2, North Carolina Courage 1 (April 29, Banc of California Stadium)
With respect to the recent 4-3 thriller at Audi Field on Saturday, the "Where were you when?" moment of the 2022 season was Angel City FC finally playing Banc of California Stadium after two years of hype.
The LA club rolled out the pink carpet for a who's-who turnout that felt like a Hollywood event, backed up a sellout crowd of 22,000 fans that combined for a deafening roar when the home side scored twice early. Women's soccer was back in LA and getting the treatment it long deserved. Angel City captain and LA native Ali Riley was in tears afterward at the reality of it all. Years from now, that game will be referenced as another inflection point on the chart of the sport's rise.
Defender of the Year: Sofia Huerta, OL Reign
I am always reluctant to award the top defender award to a player in large part because of their offensive production, but it is difficult to ignore Sofia Huerta's season for OL Reign (and how it carries over to her U.S. national team prospects).
Huerta, as a right-back, leads the entire NWSL in big chances created, per TruMedia and Stats Perform, and she is arguably the best crosser of the ball from wide areas. Her four assists are one off the league lead and have come at crucial moments for the Reign and, in general, her unique abilities as a full-back allow the team to play the way they do. Huerta has also improved on the defensive side of the ball and is a consistent starter on a Reign team that has conceded the fewest number of goals of all teams this season. As defenders go, she is as influential as it gets, even if largely on the offensive side of the ball.
Also in the running: Naomi Girma, San Diego Wave FC; Tatumn Milazzo, Chicago Red Stars; Elizabeth Ball, Kansas City Current; Hailie Mace, Kansas City Current; Alana Cook, OL Reign
Girma has a fair shout as the league's best defender, which is why she takes the rookie award for me. Tatumn Milazzo is also among the most improved players in the league, especially in 1-v-1 scenarios, and impressed as one of Chicago's backs in a 3-5-2 system that put plenty of pressure on her.
Huerta's teammate, Alana Cook, is a big piece of the Reign's defensive strength, too, and the Kansas City duo of Elizabeth Ball and Hailie Mace deserves mention as center-back and wing-back, respectively.
Goalkeeper of the Year: Phallon Tullis-Joyce, OL Reign
Goalkeeping is a perennial strength in the NWSL and in the U.S. national team depth chart, and this season there is a new entry among the most impressive in club play.
Phallon Tullis-Joyce, in her first season as the starter, leads the NWSL in save percentage, per FBRef, and ranks sixth in saves. She has consistently made spectacular saves in the Challenge Cup and regular season alike to keep OL Reign in games and change results, and her potential ceiling is incredibly high.
Her love for learning about marine and aquatic life, combined with her great shot-stopping ability, led fans to liken her to an octopus, a suggestion that she has more than two arms to stop shots.
Also in the running: Kailen Sheridan, San Diego Wave FC; Bella Bixby, Portland Thorns FC; DiDi Haracic, Angel City FC
Kailen Sheridan and Bella Bixby are currently tied with Tullis-Joyce for the league lead in goals-against average at 1.00. Sheridan is the best penalty-stopper of the bunch and least likely to make an out-of-character mistake. She could well add to San Diego's team haul in the official vote. DiDi Haracic turned around from a rough start to the season to help keep Angel City FC in games, with just 19 goals conceded in 17 games. She's a big reason why the expansion team has managed a +1 goal difference and stayed in the playoff race.
Best Save: Jane Campbell, Houston Dash vs. Angel City FC, June 7
Technically, this is best saves (plural) and it wins both for the denial and the reaction to get back up and squash the rebound. Campbell was incredible in this moment, and these saves preserved a crucial point in a scoreless draw in Los Angeles.
Most GIFable moment: Emily Sonnett, Washington Spirit vs. Portland Thorns, May 18
Emily Sonnett is a repeat winner in this category after her role in a 2019 incident with Amy Rodriguez. This year, in one of the most entertaining games of the season, Sonnett thought she scored a late winner, only to realize the goal had been called back, then snapped to the realization that the Thorns had already put the ball back in play and were going the other way.
It was also a heads-up play from the Spirit to not get countered, and Sonnett was brilliant on the night in a series of 1-v-1 battles with Sophia Smith (with plenty of smack-talking in between.