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NWSL awards race: Frontrunners for MVP and other top honors

Sophia Smith’s injury might change the outcome, but for now she is the frontrunner for NWSL MVP. (Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports)

With five games remaining in the NWSL regular season, the players who have excelled in 2023 are beginning to wrap up their individual awards campaigns. While the 2023 World Cup took a number of stars away from their squads, a well-timed Challenge Cup break allowed many to miss as few regular season matches as possible, making the awards race as compelling as ever.

As we head into the home stretch of the season, here’s how my current NWSL awards ballot is shaping up.

MVP: Sophia Smith, Portland Thorns

Shortlist: Kerolin, Adriana, Sam Coffey

While Smith has missed a few regular season games due to the World Cup (and may miss more due to an MCL sprain), she has once again been a standout among many in 2023. She leads the league in goals scored with 11, in addition to an impressive tally of five assists. Her dribbling abilities are unmatched, as teams build their entire game plans around trying to stop her from running in on goal to little avail.

If Smith misses the rest of the season due to her injury, the scales might tip out of her favor simply due to availability. But based on her per-game 90-minute impact, she is worthy of the MVP trophy for a second straight year.

Defender of the Year: Sam Staab, Washington Spirit

Shortlist: Sarah Gorden, Ali Krieger, Michelle Alozie

Sam Staab is such a steady presence along the Washington Spirit backline that at times she undeservedly fades into the background of the awards conversation. Partnering with first-time center-back Tara McKeown, she is the anchor of a defense that has undergone extensive change in recent years. While Washington’s defense hasn’t been perfect this year, Staab consistently controls space while playing a key role in the Spirit’s ball progression, including long-ball distribution.

Washington’s defense has tightened up in the second half of the season, giving Staab my nod over players in more staunch units. She’s been one of the better center-backs in the league for years, and 2023 is no different.

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(Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports)

Goalkeeper of the Year: Katie Lund, Racing Louisville

Shortlist: Kailen Sheridan, Aubrey Kingsbury, Abby Smith

Katie Lund has been overlooked for major postseason awards due to Louisville’s difficulty with getting above the playoff line, but 2023 should be her year. She’s consistently one of the best shot-stoppers in the league, excelling both when Louisville’s defense is struggling and when she has seasoned veterans like Abby Erceg in front of her. Lund leads the NWSL in saves and leads the league’s goalkeepers in American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric, based on her elite ability to stop shots.

Louisville increasingly looks like a team with a number of stars that can’t quite find the winning combination to contend for the playoffs, but Lund has been a steady standout for years.

Coach of the Year: Becki Tweed, Angel City

Shortlist: Juan Carlos Amorós, Mark Parsons, Sean Nahas

It’s unconventional to put an interim manager up for Coach of the Year, but Becki Tweed has flipped the script. Tweed has only been in charge of Angel City since June 14, after the club parted ways with Freya Coombe, but her ability to build off the team’s foundation has been impressive to witness. The squad is currently undefeated under her management, without having drastically changed their style of play. Tweed has simply adjusted the clarity of instruction to help turn Angel City’s players into the best versions of themselves.

Tweed’s candidacy for Coach of the Year may be dependent on the Los Angeles club qualifying for their first playoff appearance, but her work is at least deserving of a permanent job and a shot at steering the team in the future.

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(Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports)

Rookie of the Year: Messiah Bright, Orlando Pride

Shortlist: Paige Metayer, Alyssa Thompson, Jenna Nighswonger

When Messiah Bright fell to the second round of the 2023 NWSL Draft, it seemed fated that the forward out of TCU would make a number of teams regret letting her pass them by. Bright has been a spark plug for a rising Orlando Pride team, collaborating well with players like Adriana and Marta and developing a talent for putting the ball in the back of the net.

With six goals so far during the regular season, she’s showcasing a tenacity that will only grow with the more NWSL minutes she plays. Whether she can get Orlando above the playoff line remains to be seen, but Bright has the skills to excel in the league for years to come.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

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.

Other former players 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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