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JWS’ 2021 NWSL awards: Our picks for MVP, Best XI and more

Trinity Rodman and Ashley Hatch of the Washington Spirit (Roy K. Miller/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Through all the challenges of the 2021 NWSL season, the play on the field reached new heights in the league’s ninth year, ending in a playoff race that came down to the wire this past weekend.

While the competition was strong across the board, a handful of players (and a coach) stood out above the rest for their individual performances and the value they brought to their teams.

Before the NWSL kicks off the postseason on Sunday, Just Women’s Sports is handing out end-of-season awards, from the individual honors to the Best XI.

Coach of the Year: Laura Harvey, OL Reign

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(Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Laura Harvey has only been with OL Reign since August, but in her short stint with the team, she’s made a big impact.

Harvey officially returned to OL Reign as the club’s head coach on July 15 after Farid Benstiti resigned from his post on July 2. It was later reported that the club had asked Benstiti to step down following player accounts of verbal abuse. Harvey previously served as head coach of OL Reign (previously known as Seattle Reign FC) from 2013 to 2017, winning Coach of the Year twice during her tenure.

Since July, Harvey has effectively steered OL Reign in their post-Olympic playoff push. After the club fell to Kansas City in her Aug. 14 debut, Harvey led OL Reign on an eight-game undefeated streak. With an influx of European talent, as well as American stars Rose Lavelle and Megan Rapinoe returning from Tokyo, Harvey has successfully managed a convergence of new players. One of Harvey’s most fruitful endeavors was the decision to move Sofia Huerta from midfield to outside back. The 28-year-old finished the regular season leading the league with six assists.

With Harvey at the helm, OL Reign is primed to make a deep run in the NWSL playoffs after finishing the regular season second in the standings and securing an automatic semifinal bid.

Rookie of the Year: Trinity Rodman, Washington Spirit

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(Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Trinity Rodman has taken the NWSL by storm, executing some of the league’s most exciting plays in her rookie season, including a must-see assist against Racing Louisville. The second overall pick of the Washington Spirit in January, Rodman became the youngest player ever drafted to the NWSL at 18 years old. Before taking the pitch, Rodman had to manage the hype surrounding her debut season. She not only met but exceeded those sky-high expectations for the No. 3 Spirit.

With five goals and a league-lead tying six assists, Rodman has emerged as a pillar of the Spirit’s offense alongside Ashley Hatch. The rookie attacker has shown a consistent ability to stretch opponents’ backlines and exploit space like a seasoned veteran. After leading Washington to a playoff berth, Rodman’s meteoric rise may very well include a run at the NWSL trophy.

Most Valuable Player: Ashley Hatch, Washington Spirit

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(Tony Quinn/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

With a league-high ten goals on the season, Ashley Hatch earned her first-ever Golden Boot award this week, beating out Bethany Balcer, Rachel Daly and Midge Purce for the honor. Hatch’s performance is even more impressive given the off-field turmoil she and the Washington Spirit have endured throughout the season.

Rocked by reports of verbal and emotional abuse in August, an investigation into former coach Richie Burke’s behavior led to him being fired for cause. Several front office resignations and a player-led campaign to get owner Steve Baldwin to sell the team to co-owner Y. Michele Kang followed. On top of all that, the Spirit were forced to forfeit two regular-season games after a breach in COVID-19 protocols. Working against mounting adversity, Hatch and the Spirit still managed to come within striking distance of the No. 2 seed, finishing third in the NWSL standings and earning a meeting with the North Carolina Courage in Sunday’s quarterfinal.

While the NWSL was filled with impactful individual performances this season, Hatch gets the nod for her prolific offense on a team that had every reason to fold.

NWSL Best XI

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Orlando's Ashlyn Harris (Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

GK — Ashlyn Harris, Orlando Pride

Ashlyn Harris has had a banner season, surpassing the NWSL career saves record of 468 to become the league’s all-time saves leader. Casey Murphy had a strong run for the Courage, but Harris’ three saves from the spot for Orlando puts her over the top.

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Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

D — Carson Pickett, North Carolina Courage

Carson Pickett had a breakout season in her first year with the Courage, notching five assists in 23 starts. The 28-year-old owned the flanks for North Carolina, delivering 27 successful crosses during the regular season.

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Soobum Im/Getty Images

D — Meghan Klingenberg, Portland Thorns

Meghan Klingenberg has been an anchor for the Thorns on and off the pitch, acting as a leader on a team filled with veteran talent. Holding down the backline, Klingenberg led the team to 13 wins and 13 clean sheets, which set a new NWSL record for most shutouts in a single season.

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Joe Robbins/ISI Photos/Getty Images

D — Caprice Dydasco, Gotham FC

Caprice Dydasco has been the centerpiece of Gotham FC’s backline this year, playing an essential role on both sides of the ball. The 28-year-old has helped the club’s defense earn its bend-but-don’t-break reputation while also playing a big role in Gotham’s attack. With five assists and a goal on the season, Dydasco is one of the most productive outside backs in the league.

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Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

D — Sarah Gorden, Chicago Red Stars

Sarah Gorden made history this season, becoming the Chicago Red Stars’ first-ever Iron Woman by playing every minute of the regular season. In 2,160 minutes on the pitch, Gorden amassed an 86.7 percent successful tackle rate as the anchor of Chicago’s defense.

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Sofia Huerta (Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

M — Sofia Huerta, OL Reign

Sofia Huerta ended the regular season tied for the league lead in assists with six. The 28-year-old started 2021 playing further up the pitch, but coach Laura Harvey has since moved Huerta to the right back position, where she has been thriving. Whether she is in the midfield or on the backline, Huerta is the key to OL Reign’s attack, whipping in crosses from the flanks with technical precision.

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Jeremy Reper/ISI Photos/Getty Images

M — Jess Fishlock, OL Reign

Jess Fishlock has the numbers on her side, notching five goals and four assists on the season, but what the 34-year-old brings to the pitch goes beyond the stat sheet. The midfielder is known to keep OL Reign in tight games, buoying her side at exactly the right time. Fishlock’s grit combined with her technical skill makes her one of the most well-rounded midfielders in the league.

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Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos/Getty Images

M — Rachel Daly, Houston Dash

As captain of the Houston Dash, Rachel Daly knows how to rally her team. The attacker executed big plays in critical moments to keep Houston alive during a streaky season that nearly ended in a playoff bid. Notching nine goals, Daly nearly clinched the Golden Boot, coming in second to Hatch on the goal-scorers ranking.

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Ifeoma Onumonu (Jesse Louie/Just Women's Sports)

F — Ifeoma Onumonu, Gotham FC

Ifeoma Onumonu is a playmaker, facilitating Gotham FC’s attack all season long. With eight goals this season, Onumonu also set up her teammates four times, making her one of the most dynamic forwards in the NWSL.

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Tony Quinn/ISI Photos/Getty Images

F — Ashley Hatch, Washington Spirit

The 2021 Golden Boot winner has caused issues for backlines all season long. Not only is the Spirit forward dangerous in the final third, burying 10 goals on 22 shots on goal, but she also is versatile. Hatch recorded four left-footed and four right-footed goals, as well as two headers, to finish the season on top.

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Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images

F — Bethany Balcer, OL Reign

Bethany Balcer has come a long way from going undrafted and entering OL Reign as a non-rostered training camp invitee. The 2019 Rookie of the Year, Balcer nearly earned herself another trophy this year, finishing just one goal shy of the Golden Boot with nine. An expert in the air, Balcer registered five header goals on the season.

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

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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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