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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.

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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