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NWSL awards: Picking a front-runner in every category

Red Stars forward Mallory Pugh and San Diego Wave defender Naomi Girma battle for the ball. (Jamie Sabau/USA TODAY Sports)

From lightning-fast rookies to strong-footed veterans, the nominees for this year’s NWSL awards all have put up outstanding seasons for their squads.

But who are the front-runners in each category? Just Women’s Sports breaks it down.

MVP: Mallory Pugh

Nominees: Debinha (NC), Naomi Girma (SD), Alex Morgan (SD), Mallory Pugh (CHI), Sophia Smith (POR)

Last year’s runner-up for MVP, Mallory Pugh has followed up her stellar 2021 season with another one in 2022.

She entered the year with 14 goals in her NWSL career, and she nearly doubled that with 11 this season. She showcased her abilities as a runner as well – in one instance taking the ball 90 yards up the field for a goal while nutmegging two players in the process against one of the league’s top teams.

Winning 80 percent of her tackles and passing with 77.3 percent accuracy, Pugh also has been among the best in the game at helping her teammates get on the score sheet. She finished the regular season with a league-leading six assists.

Defender of the Year: Naomi Girma

Nominees: Alana Cook (RGN), Naomi Girma (SD), Sofia Huerta (RGN), Carson Pickett (NC), Becky Sauerbrunn (POR)

From a statistical standpoint, Naomi Girma has been far and above the best defender in the league this season. She started all 19 games she played as a rookie, and she made more clearances and blocks than any other defender in the category. She was also third in interceptions.

The rookie anchored the Wave’s defense en route to a playoff berth — the first for an expansion club in NWSL history. Girma won 70.8 percent of her duels, the most among the nominees. She was also the second-best passer behind Becky Sauerbrunn with an 83 percent success rate.

A case also could be made for Becky Sauerbrunn, who made 55 clearances, 23 interceptions and nine blocks, while also being the best passer with an 88.2 percent success rate.

However, one snub arguably could have risen above the rest: Tatumn Milazzo. The Red Stars defender made 100 clearances, a league-leading 50 interceptions and eight blocks on the season while recording a 78.7 percent success rate on her passes.

Goalkeeper of the Year: Phallon Tullis-Joyce

Nominees: AD Franch (KC), Kailen Sheridan (SD), Phallon Tullis-Joyce (RGN)

Here’s a doozy: Neither AD Franch nor Phallon Tullis-Joyce have been called up to the USWNT this year. And while Alyssa Naeher has undoubtedly earned her spot on the roster, it’s worth wondering why USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski hasn’t given either of these NWSL stars an opportunity as he continues to flesh out his World Cup team.

Tullis-Joyce has been one of the best goaltenders in the league all season long. While it’s her first year as starting goalkeeper for OL Reign, one wouldn’t know that by the way that she’s played. She’s been a force, playing all 1,980 minutes of the season and recording nine clean sheets through 22 games – including in each of the team’s final three matches of the season.

Additionally, the goalkeeper made 65 saves on the season, allowing a league-low 19 goals all season long. (Sheridan allowed just 17 goals, but she played in just 18 games). Tullis-Joyce also ranks first in save percentage (81 percent) and goals against average per 90 minutes (0.86).

Franch and Sheridan also deserve a look in the tight race for this award. As noted above, Sheridan allowed just 17 goals for a Wave team that has exceeded expectations. Franch, meanwhile, has been a brick wall – she’s made 66 saves on the season while allowing just 25 goals through 20 games.

Rookie of the Year: Naomi Girma

Nominees: Sam Coffey (POR), Naomi Girma (SD), Diana Ordóñez (NC)

While Diana Ordóñez and Sam Coffey have both put up incredible rookie campaigns, Naomi Girma has shown that she has what it takes to become the face of the league for years to come. After all, the defender isn’t just nominated for this award — she’s also nominated for NWSL Defender of the Year and MVP, which is indicative of the season she’s had.

The Stanford grad was twice named to the NWSL’s Best XI of the Month and was once named Rookie of the Month. With eight USWNT call-ups under her belt this year, including a start against England, Girma has gained valuable experience and even worn the captain’s armband for San Diego. She’s also passed with 83 percent accuracy, won 68 percent of her duels and made 85 clearances, 12 blocks and 24 interceptions.

In short, no rookie – and perhaps no defender – has had a better year than Girma.

Coach of the Year: Casey Stoney

Nominees: Laura Harvey (RGN), Matt Potter (KC), Casey Stoney (SD)

Both Laura Harvey and Matt Potter did an outstanding job leading their teams this season, but neither did a better job than Casey Stoney.

Stoney had a tall task managing a first-year expansion club, but she led the Wave to the postseason — making them the first expansion club to achieve that feat. For comparison, Racing Louisville finished ninth in their inaugural season, while the Current finished 10th out of 10 teams. The Orlando Pride finished ninth out of nine teams in their inaugural season in 2016.

The Wave’s fellow expansion team Angel City FC finished eighth this season. San Diego, meanwhile, finished third in the league after topping the table for the first half of the season and amassing a 10-6-6 record.

Through 22 games, the club had nine clean sheets, earning Sheridan a nomination for Goalkeeper of the Year. Forward Alex Morgan has been one of the league’s best scorers, while the team boasts five total nominations for NWSL awards, including three from rookie Naomi Girma.