This season was one of the most competitive in the NWSL’s history. With the 2023 World Cup pulling players away from their clubs, despite scheduling changes to mitigate absences, the season featured ebbs and flows. Teams battled every week to gain an edge, and the final standings and playoff spots came down to the final day of matches on Sunday.
Consequently, it was an interesting year for individual performances. The San Diego Wave, the NWSL Shield winners, played gritty team football rather than being carried by one particular player. The Portland Thorns looked like the best team in the league at times, but they struggled with consistent form. And some of the best players of all couldn’t get their teams into the playoffs.
With many factors in play, here is my shortlist for 2023 NWSL MVP.
Kerolin ticks a number of boxes that you want when you’re looking for an MVP candidate. She was a consistent goal scorer, finishing second in the Golden Boot race with 10 goals and three assists on the season. Her accumulative xG of 8.16, as compiled by American Soccer Analysis, was good enough for third in the league, and she delivered quality finishing in big moments.
She also has the argument of intangibles. The Courage lost a number of stars in the offseason, and it was unclear if they could pull together their new group in time to contend for the 2023 playoffs. North Carolina went on to surprise everyone, playing more methodically but staying equally as threatening in the attack, led by Kerolin’s steady performance.
In terms of how she compares to her peers in the league, and what she brings to a club that defied the odds to finish the season in third, Kerolin has to be considered an MVP frontrunner.
The Thorns had an up-and-down year of player availability, due to the World Cup and lingering injury issues. As a result, Portland’s success came in spurts, with different players adding to a collective whole. Sophia Smith was statistically the most impressive player in the league before international duty and a knee injury kept her sidelined for much of the final third of the season. Morgan Weaver then picked up the slack, making key goal contributions down the stretch to earn Portland a top-two finish for the second year in a row.
But in terms of consistency, Sam Coffey is the Thorns’ best MVP candidate. Coffey handled a USWNT World Cup snub with grace, anchoring the Portland midfield as a disruptor on defense and a distributive engine in the attack. She finished the season with eight assists, three more than the next closest player, while adjusting to an ever-changing lineup of players around her. She played alongside multiple attacking midfielders, never wavering in her ability to connect and facilitate the league’s most effective attack.
Although the Thorns fell just short of the Shield again in 2023, they played some of the most cohesive soccer throughout the season largely thanks to Coffey.
Voting philosophies for MVP can take on different lines of thinking. Should the award reflect the best player on the best team? Should it reward the top statistical performer in the NWSL? Or should it showcase a player whose team would struggle the most without them?
If we’re arguing for the last point, Adriana needs to be in the conversation. Her contributions flew under the radar at times, despite her scoring six goals and notching four assists throughout the regular season. The Brazilian attacker had the stats to back up her performances, sitting third in American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric in large part due to her magical abilities on the ball.
In addition to her striking talents, Adriana is an excellent dribbler of the ball, bringing a dynamism to the Orlando attack that almost carried the team into the playoffs for the first time since 2017. While they fell short this time, the Pride look like a team prepped for the future, with Adriana’s breakout success a key part of that foundation.
The Wave never relied on one single player on their way to finishing at the top of the NWSL table. Abby Dahlkemper’s midseason return shook up their staunch defense, and the team went through a rough patch before rounding into form late in the year. Jaedyn Shaw stood out among the rest for taking her added responsibilities in the attack and the midfield in stride. And if MVP should reward consistency, growth, and team reliance, the teenager deserves a look.
Shaw has scored the most goals as a teenager in NWSL history, breaking the record previously held by Trinity Rodman. The 18-year-old added key elements to her game in 2023: She adjusted to becoming more of a playmaker and facilitator as much as a goal scorer, and she showcased dribbling and passing abilities that will only improve over time. Shaw scored six goals and notched three assists in the regular season, often keeping the Wave in games as they found their form.
In her second professional season, there’s an argument that Shaw is not only the best young player in the league, but also one of the best players regardless of age. As a key part of the Wave’s Shield run, she has a serious case for MVP.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.