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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.