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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.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

One former player contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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