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NWSL end-of-season awards: Picks for 2023 MVP and more

Apr 22, 2023; Harrison, New Jersey, USA; North Carolina Courage forward Kerolin Nicoli (9) plays the ball against New Jersey/New York Gotham FC defender Ali Krieger (11) during the first half at Red Bull Arena. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023 NWSL season provided the emotional rollercoaster the league has become known for, with incredibly competitive games producing big wins and devastating losses. NWSL years with major international tournaments can disrupt form, but a few players and coaches have risen to the occasion to guide their squads through a tumultuous year.

After thorough review, here are my choices for the 2023 NWSL end-of-season awards.

MVP

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(Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

Kerolin, F, North Carolina Courage

Shortlist: Sam Coffey, Adriana, Jaedyn Shaw

In a season where many stars burned bright in spurts, Kerolin stands out the most as 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. Other top scorers like Sophia Smith struggled with availability, and Kerolin carried her momentum through the Courage’s big playoff push.

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 be a real playoff contender in 2023. North Carolina went on to surprise everyone by finishing third in the league standings. They played more methodically but stayed equally as threatening in the attack this season, led by Kerolin’s steady performance both as a striker and as a player who pulled space to aid her teammates.

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 my vote for 2023 MVP.

Coach of the Year

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(Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports)

Sean Nahas, North Carolina Courage

Shortlist: Juan Carlos Amoros, Becki Tweed, Casey Stoney

Many of the same tenets of Kerolin’s case for MVP apply to the Courage as a whole, as led by head coach Sean Nahas. The losses of Debinha, Abby Erceg, Carson Pickett and Diana Ordoñez could (and perhaps should) have sunk the team’s chances for long-term success in 2023. Nahas followed a rough free agency period with a puzzling draft approach, taking prospects he prized over common consensus.

But Nahas’ vision shined throughout the season. The Courage, a team previously known for quick counter-attacks, began instead to prize possession and methodical build-up. Despite turnover in the team’s defense, the Courage finished the season tied for second-fewest goals allowed in the league. International signings Narumi Miura and Manaka Matsukubo also made immediate impacts in the midfield. As a result, North Carolina has looked more like a team reloaded than a roster rebuilding.

The Courage proved many experts wrong, and Nahas stepped into his role leading the squad with a clear style of play, making him deserving of Coach of the Year.

Goalkeeper of the Year

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(Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports)

Katie Lund, GK, Racing Louisville

Shortlist: Jane Campbell, Abby Smith, Kailen Sheridan

This award can be divided by philosophy — whether the best goalkeeper is the player with the most organized defense or the player who excels even when their defense breaks down in front of them. Katie Lund had an argument for the latter in 2022, leading the NWSL in saves as the Louisville defense struggled to protect their keeper.

It wasn’t a standout season for a number of goalkeepers considered to be among the world’s best. The Wave’s Kailen Sheridan likely performed the best in the former category; Gotham’s Abby Smith looked poised for a breakout year before being sidelined by injury; and Houston’s Jane Campbell backed up the sturdiest defense in the NWSL.

While Racing’s defense improved this year, Lund also put together standout performances to keep her team in games. She’s arguably been the best pure shot-stopper in the league for two years in a row. And while she is still developing her distribution with the ball at her feet, she showcased technical abilities that could put her on the radar of the U.S. women’s national team and are worthy of Goalkeeper of the Year.

Rookie of the Year

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(Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports)

Messiah Bright, F, Orlando Pride

Shortlist: Alyssa Thompson, Paige Metayer, Jenna Nighswonger

As should be expected for young players coming into the league, the 2023 NWSL rookies had moments of individual excellence but also struggled with consistency throughout the year.

No. 1 draft pick Alyssa Thompson thrived at times with the spotlight on her, most notably scoring a crucial equalizer on Oct. 8 to keep Angel City’s playoff hopes alive. Washington’s Paige Metayer and Gotham’s Jenna Nighswonger also contributed significantly to their sides, even as Nighswonger navigated a position change to outside back. But none stood out quite like Orlando’s Messiah Bright, who finished the season with six goals for a Pride team that just barely missed out on the playoffs.

Bright fell to the second round of the 2023 draft despite being considered a top prospect by many. The TCU graduate then proved wrong every team that passed on her, becoming a key member of the Orlando attack. Most notably, she scored consistently during a key stretch in which the Pride compiled more wins than four clubs that finished above the playoff line.

Defender of the Year

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(Ira L. Black/Getty Images)

Ali Krieger, D, Gotham FC

Shortlist: Kylie Strom, Sam Staab, Naomi Girma

It was a strong season for defenders throughout the league, with every team having at least one clear cornerstone along their backline. Kylie Strom has excelled as an outside back for Orlando; Sam Staab continued her Iron Woman ways for the Spirit; and 2022 Defender of the Year Naomi Girma has become so synonymous with excellence that it’s easy to overlook.

But one defender has stood out, in part due to the story of her year. In her last season before retirement, Gotham’s Ali Krieger has looked as sharp as ever, guiding the club from the league basement in 2022 to a playoff spot in 2023. She’s been a clear vocal leader for a team undergoing a significant amount of change, and she’s looked comfortable at center back after spending most of her career running the flank.

Krieger is less of an aerial presence than some more traditional center-backs, but she can use her positioning and center of gravity to make it very difficult to pass her by, which could be the basis for a career-extending playoff run. Though there are few bad candidates for Defender of the Year, Krieger appears to have the momentum to go out on a high.

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

Portland Thorns start NWSL season winless, in uncharted territory

Portland has started the season winless through four games for the first time. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

The Portland Thorns continue to struggle to start the season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage and remaining winless through its first four games. 

It’s uncharted territory for Portland, who has never started the NWSL regular season without a win in four games before. Following the loss, defender Becky Sauerbrunn voiced her frustrations with the start. 

“It’s hard to find a lot of encouraging things, but what I find encouraging is that people are frustrated,” she said. “People are pissed off that we’re not doing well. We care, and I think that’s really important.” 


She also added that while the team will reflect individually, “there’s going to be no finger pointing.”

“We’re going to look at ourselves and figure out what we should have done, or I should have done better,” she said. “There is a list of things that I could have done better, and I’m going to make sure I know every single thing and watch this game back.”

The Thorns currently sit at the bottom of the league table with just one point, having allowed 10 goals – tied for the worst in the league. They’ve yet to lead in a match. And as questions grow, answers need to be had from head coach Mike Norris. 

Norris is in his second year as head coach of the club after leading the team to a second-place finish in the regular season last year. When asked about the possibility of pressure growing after the unprecedented start, Norris said that the pressure has been there “from day one.”

“I cannot be driven by my day-to-day and the longer vision of the pressure of the job,” he said. “We’ve got a belief in how we want to play, how we operate. We’ve got to stick with the process of that. While we do it, we have to review and see what is working, what’s not working.

“I’ll be showing up for the team and being there for what they need from me as we approach getting back together as a group next week.”

Maria Sanchez reportedly requests trade from Houston Dash

Mar 23, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Dash forward Maria Sanchez (7) warms up before the match between Racing Louisville and Houston Dash at Shell Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Maria Sanchez, who signed one of the biggest deals in NWSL history just four months ago, has reportedly requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

ESPN was the first to report the news, which was confirmed by multiple sources.

In a statement to ESPN, the team said: “​​Maria Sanchez is under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the Dash worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. At the time, it was the largest contract in NWSL history – something that was eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

The winger was a restricted free agent in the offseason, meaning that Houston could match any offer from another team and retain her rights. Should the team trade Sanchez, her contract would remain as it has been signed with the league. That limits the number of teams that could take on her contract. 

In three starts with the Dash this season, Sanchez has zero goals and an assist. The Dash are 1-2-1 through four games and have allowed a league-worst 10 goals.

The team hired a new coach, Fran Alonso, in December. Earlier this year, former goalkeeper coach Matt Lampson was fired for violating the league’s Coach Code of Conduct and Anti-Fraternization policy. 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close at midnight ET on Friday.

Canada beats U.S. Hockey 6-5 in thrilling World Championship win

UTICA, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Team Canada raises the Championship Trophy after winning The Gold by defeating The United States in OT during the 2024 IIHF Women's World Championship Gold Medal game at Adirondack Bank Center on April 14, 2024 in Utica, New York. (Photo by Troy Parla/Getty Images)

Canada got its revenge on Sunday, winning the 2024 IIHF Women’s World Championship and taking down the U.S. in a 6-5 overtime classic.

Marie-Philip Poulin, a longtime star for Canada, got her first two goals of the tournament, while Danielle Serdachny had the game-winner. 

"I hate to say you're not trying to rely on it, expect it, but I know I've grown to expect it," Canada coach Troy Ryan said of Philip-Poulin. "Tonight was just a whole other level. I could see in her eyes every time we called her name that she was ready to go. It's just special."

The win came after Canada lost 1-0 to the U.S. in the group stage of the tournament. On Sunday, the two teams met for the 22nd time in 23 tournaments in the gold medal game – and the action between the two teams delivered. 

Among those scoring for the U.S. were Megan Keller, Alex Carpenter, Hilary Knight, Laila Edwards and Caroline Harvey. Julia Gosling, Emily Clark and Erin Ambrose had the other three goals for Canada, giving them their 13th World title after falling to the U.S. in last year’s title game in Toronto. 

This year’s game was held in New York, and it was the second-highest scoring final between the two teams. The U.S. won a world championship 7-5 in 2015. 

"Oh man, that feels good to win it on U.S. soil," Canada goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens said after the game. "We owed it to them and owed it to ourselves to win that one."

Canada also denied Knight a record 10th World Championship win, although she did become the most decorated player in women’s world championship history with 14 medals. After the game, Poulin gave Knight a hug on the ice. 

"We just said 'that was unbelievable,'" Poulin said.

U.S. coach John Wroblewski echoed the sentiment that it was an outstanding game after being asked about ending the game on a power-play after leaving too many players on the ice. 

"Instead of talking about the isolated events of tonight's game, I think that normally that's an interesting storyline,” he said. “But I think the entity of an amazing 6-5 game is an amazing hockey game that took place."

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

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