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NWSL 2023 MVP: Who’s leading the race at midseason?

Sophia Smith leads the NWSL with 10 goals in the regular season as she heads to the World Cup with the USWNT. (Gary Rohman/USA TODAY Sports)

The number of NWSL games left in the 2023 season has now hit single digits, and more than a few players have brought goal-scoring fireworks. It has not been a particularly impressive season for NWSL defenses thus far, and as a result, our midseason MVP shortlist is primarily made up of attackers.

Shootouts and big scorelines have been common this season. Players facing up on goal have shifted outcomes with ease, and many of those gearing up for the World Cup stage have raised their games to new levels. In contrast, some teams near the top of the table have found success by sharing the load.

Here are our picks for NWSL MVP frontrunners, with two-thirds of the season behind us.

Sophia Smith, F, Portland Thorns

It’s Sophia Smith’s world, and we’re all just living in it. Smith leads the league in goals scored with 10, is second in assists with five, and features as the focal point of the NWSL’s most vaunted attack. She scored her first two career hat tricks in 2023, leads the league in both shots and shots on goal, and is the top field player in generating xG and American Soccer Analysis’s g+ calculation.

It can be difficult to say definitively that a player already at an MVP level has raised their game, but in a crucial World Cup year, Smith has managed to do just that. Her campaign will take a slight hit with her missing at least two regular season games due to the World Cup, but if she returns to the NWSL in a form anywhere near how she left it, she’ll be a near lock for a second-straight MVP award.

Kerolin, F, North Carolina Courage

Kerolin was already a mid-season force in 2022, but taking on an expanded role in 2023, she’s become one of the premier attackers in the NWSL. With her eight regular season goals, the Courage have shot toward the top of the league table, a stunning reversal of fortunes considering the team lost talent like Debinha and Diana Ordoñez in the offseason.

Kerolin’s underlying stats also support her growing influence on matches. She’s currently sixth among field players in xG generated, having notched a hat trick in June, and her impressive dribbling stats showcase how important she is to North Carolina’s overall ball progression.

Lynn Williams, F, Gotham FC

If you believe an MVP award represents in part what a player means to their team, Lynn Williams is a necessary addition to the shortlist. Where Williams goes, so goes Gotham, who have jumped from last place in 2022 to playoff contender in 2023 thanks to the striker’s clinical form.

Williams, who recently signed a three-year contract extension with Gotham after getting trade to the club in January, has adjusted her playing style to fit more of a lone striker role and scored seven goals, many of which have been opportunistic strikes off of turnovers. Her shots to shots-on-goal ratio competes with Smith’s. She’s shown the ability to step up and execute in crucial moments, leading Gotham in key attacking stats like xG and ASA’s g+ metric. She might not end up being the NWSL’s top performer in 2023, but in terms of value, she’s irreplaceable for a team on the rise.

Ashley Hatch, F, Washington Spirit

Keep an eye on Ashley Hatch. One of the first players left off the USWNT’s World Cup squad, the Washington Spirit forward has been just as efficient in front of goal in 2023 as in past seasons. She’s quietly scored eight goals in the regular season and is second behind Smith in xG generated.

She also will be with her club team consistently throughout the rest of the season, unlike the other World Cup players on this shortlist. Even with the league’s short break during the international competition, Hatch should have more opportunities — and extra motivation from a World Cup snub — to contend for a second-career NWSL Golden Boot honor.

Our pick: Sophia Smith

Smith has two Player of the Month awards to her name already in 2023, and she’s got a clear runway to continue her dominant run. She’s first in the most concrete stat available (goals scored), and she leads the competition in almost every other relevant advanced stat. There are a few players close to reaching Smith’s level, but none that have overtaken her thus far, making her our midseason MVP.

Whether Portland can pull off a repeat NWSL championship remains to be seen, but Smith’s two-year period of dominance has left no doubts. She’ll take her form to the international level before finishing business at home.

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.

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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