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NWSL 2023 predictions: Picks for MVP, champion and more

Chicago Red Stars forward Mallory Pugh started the year off with eight goals in six games for the USWNT. (Daniel Bartel/USA TODAY Sports)

The 2023 NWSL is shaping up to be one of the most competitive yet, as a new wave of talent enters the league. With the 2023 World Cup taking place in the middle of the NWSL season, expect top internationals to step up their game prior to the tournament and underrated teammates to emerge in their absence.

Let’s take a look at who seems poised for a career year in 2023, as availability ebbs and flows around the international calendar. These are my predictions for the top team and individual awards this NWSL season.

Rookie of the Year: Alyssa Thompson, Angel City FC

Competition for this award will be fierce, with the first two 2023 draft picks — Thompson and Kansas City’s Michelle Cooper — likely to see a fair amount of playing time and a number of late-round gems looking strong in preseason. This award went to a defender last year in San Diego’s Naomi Girma, so I anticipate it swinging back around to an attacker in 2023.

Thompson is the easy choice due to her high-profile entry into the NWSL. The No. 1 pick should have the opportunity to produce as a bigger part of Angel City’s attack due to the injuries they’re carrying along their frontline.

Dark-horse candidate: Messiah Bright, Orlando Pride

(Harry How/Getty Images)

Defender of the Year: Sarah Gorden, Angel City FC

Sarah Gorden’s return to an NWSL defense is going to feel like a breath of fresh air after a season lost to an ACL tear. The center back plays her position with a freedom of spacing thanks to her blistering speed, which allows her to push forward in distribution while also making key recovery runs. Angel City might need positional flexibility from Gorden as they settle on their defensive personnel at center and outside back, and she’ll take the opportunity and run with it.

Dark-horse candidate: Tierna Davidson, Chicago Red Stars (if she doesn’t make the USWNT roster)

Goalkeeper of the Year: Bella Bixby, Portland Thorns

Kailen Sheridan deservedly won this award last year, but with the Canadian goalkeeper likely absent during the World Cup period, other top performers could rise to the occasion. Bixby has been a consistent presence for the reigning champion Thorns, but sometimes gets overlooked due to the excellence of her backline. If the Thorns make another run at the NWSL Shield, Bixby could finally get some of the individual attention befitting her performances.

Dark-horse candidate: Abby Smith, Gotham FC

(Jamie Sabau/USA TODAY Sports)

Coach of the Year: Casey Stoney, San Diego Wave

Stoney won Coach of the Year in 2022, and there’s very little reason to think she’d give up the title in 2023. The Wave have constructed their roster to be able to withstand pressure from opponents and take the next step toward controlling tempo and evolving their style of play in Year 2. Stoney also has the challenge of dealing with World Cup absences. If the Wave can both produce top internationals and stay close in the Shield race, expect Stoney to have this one locked up.

Dark-horse candidate: Seb Hines, Orlando Pride

Golden Boot: Mallory Swanson, Chicago Red Stars

Swanson will likely miss a number of games for the World Cup, but with the way she is playing so far this year, it might not matter in the Golden Boot race. Swanson has had the task of being Chicago’s primary goal-scorer and playmaker in recent seasons, notching 11 goals and eight assists in 2022. This season, the Red Stars will rely on her once again as their attacking engine. If she can stay healthy, the clinical finishing she’s been showcasing with the U.S. women’s national team could put her on top.

Dark-horse candidate: Ebony Salmon, Houston Dash

(Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

MVP: Sam Coffey, Portland Thorns

A defensive midfielder has never won NWSL MVP, but if there was ever a year to break the mold, it would be 2023. Coffey has found herself on the outside of the USWNT midfield bubble for this summer’s World Cup, and players who have just missed out on an international opportunity have thrived in the past. In fact, if the U.S. struggles in the midfield on the international stage, Coffey’s excellence at the league level might be thrown into sharp contrast, garnering the attention her position sometimes lacks.

Dark-horse candidate: Midge Purce, Gotham FC

Challenge Cup champion: Orlando Pride

The winner of the Challenge Cup should be a squad best set up to withstand World Cup absences, and the Pride might just fit that bill. Orlando has been in a strategic rebuild over the last few offseasons, and the team’s up-and-coming talent should have significant playing time under their belts by the middle of the regular season. While NWSL Shield contenders have to manage more rotations, teams with their core intact might be able to snag the first Cup of the year.

Dark-horse candidate: Angel City FC

OL Reign's Jess Fishlock and Laura Harvey (Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images)

NWSL Shield: OL Reign

The Reign play some of the most intricate soccer in the NWSL, and they suffered no real loss of talent over the offseason. The 2022 Shield winners still have room to grow as a squad, including integrating their frontline into the smothering possession-based style of their midfield. They’ll also have to be versatile in handling international absences mid-season, but the Shield rewards consistency, and the Reign are the most consistent club in the league under coach Laura Harvey.

Dark-horse candidate: San Diego Wave

NWSL Champion: Kansas City Current

Unlike the NWSL Shield, winning the NWSL Championship is about peaking at the right time. It might take the Current a few months to begin to gel after an offseason of intense roster reshuffling, but if they can ride the wave of World Cup returners into their best run of form, they’ll be difficult to break down in the postseason. Head coach Matt Potter now has NWSL final experience and should have the tactical ability to keep his group versatile enough to solve any problem.

Dark-horse candidate: Portland Thorns

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