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NWSL MVP race: Sophia Smith, Mallory Pugh, Alex Morgan emerge as frontrunners

Sophia Smith celebrates a goal during the SheBelieves Cup. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The international break is here, and with it comes a pause in NWSL action. As we near the halfway point of the season, three frontrunners for NWSL MVP have emerged: Portland Thorns forward Sophia Smith, Chicago Red Stars forward Mallory Pugh, and San Diego Wave FC forward Alex Morgan.

Smith, Pugh and Morgan were all recently named to the USWNT’s World Cup qualifying roster and are currently in camp with the national team.

Below, we break down each of their cases for NWSL MVP.

Sophia Smith, Portland Thorns

At just 21 years old, Sophia Smith has already cemented herself as one of the NWSL’s best players within just three seasons of playing. She finished second in the race for the Golden Boot last season with nine goals through 22 games and currently sits in second place once again, with eight goals through nine games. Alex Morgan sits in first with 11 goals.

“It’s always really exciting to have someone to chase after — and it’s Alex Morgan, of course,” Smith said. “It’s friendly competition. And obviously it’s great to score goals, but for my team to be doing well is even better. This league is just fun — it’s fun to have people scoring lots of goals.”

Two of Smith’s goals came this past weekend, when she notched her third career NWSL brace.

It marked back-to-back braces for Smith, who also had two goals earlier this season in Portland’s 4-0 win over Houston.

Smith has made such an impact in the NWSL that USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski, who has repeatedly cited NWSL play as a deciding factor in USWNT spots, said that both Smith and Mallory Pugh’s spots are decided for the foreseeable future.

“I don’t think it will be a surprise if I say that it will be extremely difficult for a player to come in and take their starting spots right now,” Andonovski said. “Those are two players that will enjoy a lot of minutes on the field — actually, will enjoy maximum minutes on the field.”

Of course, Smith has made an impact for the USWNT as well, with four goals and three assists through 15 appearances. Three of those have come this year, through multiple friendly appearances and the SheBelieves Cup — the second-most on the USWNT behind Pugh and Catarina Macario.

While Trinity Rodman topped ESPN’s list of best women’s players aged 21 or younger, Smith sat fourth and she’s slowly been making her case for higher on the list.

As the season goes on, Smith should only tally up more goals, as she currently ranks first in both shots and shots on goal, with 30 and 20, respectively. While she only has eight goals to show for it, as Portland continues to roll, having won three of their last five matches, so should Smith.

Mallory Pugh, Chicago Red Stars

Once again, Mallory Pugh has been putting on a show in Chicago. After finishing second in NWSL MVP voting last season with five goals and four assists, Pugh has already equalled her goals total this season. With five goals through seven games, Pugh is pretty much guaranteed to better her stats from last season.

She’s also been effective defensively, being named the NWSL Player of the Week by Just Women’s Sports for her performance against Orlando the week of June 5. Pugh has proven exceptional at creating chances, with an average of 2.1 per match, which ranks in the league’s top 10.

Pugh is also more effective in getting shots on goal, even if she doesn’t have the total to show for it. In just 22 shots this season, Pugh has put 19 of them on goal.

This past weekend, Pugh had a goal and an assist in the Red Stars’ draw with Kansas City, continuing her scoring streak to three straight games.

Named to the NWSL’s Second XI last season, the forward has returned to form with a vengeance and is continuing to capitalize on the momentum. And her NWSL dominance is paying off at the international level — USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski recently said Pugh is all but locked into a starting role with the national team.

Alex Morgan, San Diego Wave FC

Prior to the start of the season, many thought Alex Morgan was entering the tail end of her career. But at 32 years old, and over 10 years into her professional career, Morgan is having a renaissance season, putting together her best NWSL campaign to date in her first year with San Diego Wave FC.

On Sunday, she once again posted a multi-goal game, bringing her goal total to a league-leading 11 through 10 appearances.

Not only does that beat last season’s Golden Boot winner, Ashley Hatch, who won the award with 10 goals on the season, but it is also a career best (her previous best was 9 in 2017).

Morgan is on pace to break the 20-goal threshold, something no NWSL player has ever done in a season (Sam Kerr was the closest with 18 in 2019). Even crazier, Morgan could finish the season with nearly as many goals as she did during her entire time with Orlando (2016-2021, 23 goals through 66 appearances). She’s also on track to beat her goal total from her time in Portland — three seasons from 2013 through 2015, during which she scored 15 goals through 36 appearances.

To add to her MVP resume, Morgan put together one of the best goal scoring performances in NWSL history earlier this season, putting up four goals in one game to tie the NWSL record.

The fact that Morgan has led San Diego to the top of the table in the franchise’s first year of playing only adds to her MVP case. Morgan is no stranger to leading first-year teams to the NWSL title. She did so in 2013 with Portland, winning the inaugural NWSL title. As of right now, San Diego sits two points ahead of Portland in the table and often looks the part as the team to beat.

If Morgan can keep up the pace of her goal scoring — and if San Diego can continue to win — not only is she the leading candidate for league MVP, but she might just be adding another NWSL title to her resume.

That’s not all that’s at stake: throughout her career, Morgan has twice been named to the NWSL’s Second XI but never the Best XI. Regardless of what happens the rest of the season, or who ends up winning NWSL MVP, that seems almost certain to change this year.