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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.