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NWSL 2022 MVP: Top candidates halfway through the season

San Diego Wave rookie Naomi Girma (Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports)

On Thursday, JWS released a list of NWSL midseason awards. Today, we complete those awards with a rundown of five frontrunners for league MVP three months into the regular season.

The Best Offensive Player and Best Defensive Player from Thursday have made this list, and are joined by three others — two forwards and one defender. We make our pick for midseason MVP at the end.

These are not predictions for who will be named the 2022 NWSL MVP, because a lot can happen between now and the end of the regular season in October, but rather a nod to the players who have stood out from the rest so far.

Let’s dive in.

Mallory Pugh, F, Chicago Red Stars

Mallory Pugh appears to be in the best form of her career. Getting 86 percent of her shots on target, she’s buried a total of six for the Red Stars to sit third in the Golden Boot race. The 2021 NWSL MVP nominee also has two assists and a dribble success rate of 76 percent. On the other side of the ball, she wins 67 percent of her tackles and has made eight interceptions. On Thursday, she was named the best offensive player in JWS’ midseason awards.

Sophia Smith, F, Portland Thorns FC

On a Thorns team full of stars, Sophia Smith manages to stand out with her quick and precise decision-making in the opponent’s box. Leading the league in both shots and shots on goal, she has eight goals and two assists on the year. The 21-year-old is behind only San Diego forward Alex Morgan (11 goals) in the Golden Boot race. Thanks to Smith’s efforts, the Thorns currently lead the league with 29 goals, nine ahead of the second-best Red Stars, and with 80 shots on goal, 16 ahead of Chicago.

Sofia Huerta, D, OL Reign

Sofia Huerta delivers some of the best crosses in the NWSL, creating two assists and 18 chances so far in 2022. With a 76 percent success on her passes and 67 percent of her shots going on target, Huerta’s accuracy is key to OL Reign’s attack. Defensively, Huerta has a 75 percent tackle success rate to help the Reign’s backline hold opponents to a league-best nine total goals this season.

Alex Morgan, F, San Diego Wave FC

Eleven goals is hard to ignore. Alex Morgan has led the league in goals all season, helping push the Wave to the top of the NWSL standings in their first season as a franchise. Creating nine chances, she also has an assist to her name and has won 75 percent of her tackles.

Our pick: Naomi Girma, D, San Diego Wave FC

A rookie has never officially won an NWSL MVP award, but if there’s a player to do it, it’s Naomi Girma.

The May Rookie of the Month has arguably been the best defender in the league this year. Making the NWSL’s Team of the Month for both May and June, the center back is smooth in every aspect of her game — from her passing accuracy of 84 percent, to her one-v-one defending, to her ability to read opponents, leading to 18 interceptions. In the absence of the injured Abby Dahlkemper, Girma has emerged as a leader who’s already worn the captain’s armband, just six months into her rookie year.

The No. 1 2022 draft pick has played every minute of the games she’s been available for, leading a San Diego backline that’s conceded just 11 goals to stay atop the league standings.

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

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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