Chicago's Mallory Pugh and San Diego's Naomi Girma were standouts for their clubs this season. (Jamie Sabau/USA TODAY Sports)

NWSL playoff contention came down to the last game of the regular season on Oct. 2, proving just how competitive this year has been. Players’ exhilarating performances kept game results and league standings unpredictable all the way from May to October.

As the playoffs head into the semifinal round this Sunday, we recognize the NWSL talent that stood a head above the rest with Just Women’s Sports’ picks for the 2022 Best XI of the Year.

Goalkeeper

AD Franch, Kansas City Current

With 66 saves and a 72.5 percent save percentage this season, AD Franch helped her team reach the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Kansas City improved from last place in 2021 to fifth this year thanks in large part to a 13-game unbeaten streak that included five shutouts.

One of Franch’s most memorable plays came against the Washington Spirit in July, when she saved a penalty shot in stoppage time. Her efforts preserved a 1-0 win for the Current and extended their unbeaten streak to six at the time. The 31-year-old’s show-stopping performance in the quarterfinals on Sunday helped Kansas City pull off a 2-1 win and advance to a semifinal matchup with OL Reign.

Defenders

Carson Pickett, North Carolina Courage

Carson Pickett makes an impact no matter where she is on the field. She finished the season as the league leader in chances created (52) and tied for the league lead in assists (six) while also recording a goal for the Courage. Defensively, Pickett had a 71 percent tackle success rate, 36 interceptions, six blocks and 32 clearances. Named to the NWSL Team of the Month three times this year, she helped the Courage rise from last in the league standings to seventh, one draw away from earning the final playoff spot.

Naomi Girma, San Diego Wave FC

In an impressive first season in the NWSL, Naomi Girma was named to three NWSL Teams of the Month and earned Rookie of the Month in May and September. Playing every minute of every game she appeared in, the 2022 No. 1 draft pick recorded an 83 percent success rate in distribution and a 71 percent success rate in duels. She helped the semifinal-bound San Diego Wave concede just 21 goals, the second-best mark in the league this season.

Kristen Edmonds, Kansas City Current 

The first player to appear in 50 games across all competitions for her club, Kristen Edmonds has been a game-changer on the Current’s backline. Winning 69.3 percent of her duels, 50 percent of her aerial duels and 62.8 percent of her tackles, Edmonds has also been critical in possession, completing 81 percent of her passes and making 12 key passes. In September, she recorded a game-tying assist in stoppage time against the Portland Thorns to keep Kansas City one point ahead of the Thorns in the standings at the time.

Sofia Huerta, OL Reign

Starting 18 of 19 games without being subbed off, Sofia Huerta helped the OL Reign backline defense concede a league-best 19 goals this season. The tenacious wingback recorded 10 blocks, 20 interceptions and 18 clearances en route to the Reign’s NWSL Shield. She also applied pressure on the attack with 14 shots and one goal, while ranking third in the league with nine big chances created and registering four assists and 36 key passes.

Midfielders

Rose Lavelle, OL Reign

Like many of her USWNT teammates, Rose Lavelle is having arguably the best season of her NWSL career. Ranked second in the league for possession won in the final third, she averaged a 60 percent tackle success rate across the field. The 27-year-old has been productive on the attack, with five goals, an assist and 25 key passes. She also successfully distributed 80.6 percent of her passes and hit her target on long balls 72.4 percent of the time.

Hina Sugita, Portland Thorns FC

Hina Sugita has been unstoppable in possession in her first season with the Thorns. With an 82 percent passing success rate, the patient midfielder completed nine successful crosses and a whopping 42 key passes. She directly contributed to nearly 20 percent of the Thorns’ 49 goals while scoring five of her own — including two game-winners — and recording four assists.

Sophie Schmidt, Houston Dash

Starting all 18 games she appeared in this season, Sophie Schmidt was the backbone of the Dash midfield that helped carry the team to its first NWSL playoff appearance in franchise history. The well-rounded defensive midfielder dominated in possession, tackles, duels, aerial duels and long passes, and she read the game exceptionally with 40 interceptions. Accumulating three goals and one assist, she demonstrated a knack for shooting from anywhere, including loose balls in front of net and one-timer rockets from outside the 18-yard box.

Forwards

Alex Morgan, San Diego Wave FC

For the first time since joining the league in 2013, Alex Morgan won the NWSL Golden Boot with a career-high 15 goals in 17 games. Her three braces tied for second in the league in 2022, and she became the third player in league history to score four goals in one game. Her 11th goal this season was the 50th of her NWSL career, making her the fifth player to reach that milestone. Morgan’s efforts helped San Diego finish third in league play and become the first expansion team to reach the NWSL playoffs in its inaugural season.

Sophia Smith, Portland Thorns FC

The Player of the Month in June, Sophia Smith was a menace in the final third all season, leading the league with 76 shots and 48 shots on goal. She ranked second in the Golden Boot race with 14 goals, just one behind Morgan. From June 8 to Aug. 5, Smith scored in five straight games, a stretch that included three of her four braces this season. The USWNT star showed this season just how dominant she can be with both feet, scoring nine goals with her right and five with her left. Her three assists also tied her with Morgan and Mallory Pugh as the league leaders in combined goals and assists with 17.

Mallory Pugh, Chicago Red Stars

Mallory Pugh can orchestrate games with her dribbling, set-up plays, finishing and defending, recording an 80 percent success rate on tackles in 2022. She finished the season as a top-five scorer with 11 goals and tied with Pickett for the league lead in assists with six. To cap an impressive campaign in which she scored five game-winning goals, Pugh notched the goal that earned the Red Stars the final NWSL playoff spot in a 2-0 win over Angel City FC.

JWS’ Best XI Second Team

GK — Phallon Tullis-Joyce, OL Reign

D — Becky Sauerbrunn, Portland Thorns

D — Alana Cook, OL Reign

D — Tatumn Milazzo, Chicago Red Stars

D — Emily Fox, Racing Louisville FC

M — Debinha, North Carolina Courage

M — Sam Coffey, Portland Thorns

M — Lo’eau Labonta, Kansas City Current

F — Kerolin, North Carolina Courage

F — Megan Rapinoe, OL Reign

F — María Sánchez, Houston Dash

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.