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Top 10 NWSL free agents: Tobin Heath, Julie Ertz among most intriguing

Tobin Heath is one of the biggest names on the market, pending he recovery from knee surgery. (Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

We’ve got two more weekends of postseason play before the 2022 NWSL calendar officially closes for the season, but it’s never too early to speculate about the league’s first free agency period.

NWSL players won the rights to free agency as part of the league’s first collective bargaining agreement, ratified before the 2022 season. Those with six years of service became unrestricted free agents on Aug. 26, though the official courting process likely won’t begin until the season ends.

While more intricate free agency opportunities will come in 2023, the rules this year are relatively simple: If you’ve played in the league for six years and are out of a contract, you can look wherever you want. On Monday, an independent arbitrator ruled in favor of the NWSL Players Association, adding 22 more players to the list of free agents and casting aside team options that had plagued the league in the past.

By nature of how long an NWSL player must compete to be eligible for free agency, many athletes on the list are core pieces of their current clubs. Not everyone will be looking to make a move, but here are 10 of the most intriguing names available.

Debinha, North Carolina Courage

Debinha is one of the biggest stars who might be inclined to make a jump. The midfielder has already won three NWSL Shields and two championships as part of the Courage, and she might want to test the waters as North Carolina maneuvers through a strategic rebuild.

She won’t lack for offers. As an attacking generator whose defensive work rate is underrated, Debinha can be one of the best players in the world in the right situation.

Most of Chicago’s midfield

The Red Stars have a whopping seven players eligible for free agency in the defense, midfield and attack. As more stories of off-field dysfunction at the club continue to emerge, a number of Chicago lifers could look for new landing spots in 2022.

The midfield trio of Danny Colaprico, Morgan Gautrat and Vanessa DiBernardo stand out, not only because of their years of service in Chicago (DiBernardo and Colaprico have never played elsewhere,) but also because they are the glue that holds the Red Stars’ formation together.

Tobin Heath, OL Reign

Heath’s status is particularly intriguing since the attacker could go in almost any direction as she works her way back onto the pitch. Heath’s short-term contract with OL Reign this season proved indicative of the last few years of her career: She is incredibly effective when she’s on the field, but injuries continue to hamper her production.

One of the biggest stars in women’s soccer, Heath has only ever played on the West Coast. It seems possible that one of the California clubs will be interested in offering her a one-year deal, pending Heath’s recovery from knee surgery in the offseason.

Julie Ertz hasn't played in an NWSL game since suffering a knee injury with the Red Stars last May. (Stephen Brashear/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Julie Ertz, Angel City FC

If a return to professional soccer is imminent for the two-time World Cup champion, this free agency period will be telling. The midfielder hasn’t appeared on the field since the Tokyo Olympics and hasn’t played club soccer since May 2021, after suffering a knee injury and then going on maternity leave.

Angel City acquired Ertz’s rights in a trade with Chicago last December that also brought Sarah Gorden to Los Angeles, but that proved to be more of a hopeful attempt at calling her up to the squad. Now, they’ll have to see if she’s inclined to return to the sport at all.

Marta, Orlando Pride

Marta has been out of the public consciousness this season as she rehabs from an ACL tear, but never count out one of the legends of the game. For the Orlando Pride, Marta’s free agency comes at an interesting time.

You would assume that her resume and leadership ability would make her club of the last six years eager to re-sign the forward. But Orlando is in the middle of a substantial rebuild, having moved many of their most prominent stars last offseason. The club might have different goals in mind than in past years and encourage Marta to explore free agency as a result.

Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Barnes, OL Reign

You’re not fooling me. Depending on their fitness and desire to return for another season, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Barnes are not playing anywhere other than Seattle next year.

Christine Sinclair, Portland Thorns

See above. Barring a shocking opening of a team in Vancouver prior to the 2023 regular season, Sinclair will stay in Portland.

Onumonu was named to the 2021 NWSL Best XI Second Team after a standout season with Gotham. (Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

Ifeoma Onumonu, NJ/NY Gotham FC

Gotham had a rough go of it in the 2022 regular season, finishing at the bottom of the league table. They’ll almost certainly have to make some tough roster decisions in the coming months, and a player of Onumonu’s talent might be looking for a more stable situation.

Onumonu can play on the wing or in the middle of the attack. After three seasons with Gotham, the 28-year-old might be inclined to field calls from more established coaches to take her game to the next level as she prepares to represent Nigeria at the 2023 World Cup.

Kristen Edmonds, Kansas City Current

Edmonds has had one of the most consistent seasons of her professional career in 2022, steadying the Current’s backline as they make a run to their first semifinal.

There are a number of NWSL teams that could use a seasoned defender, including Gotham FC. And as a New Jersey native, Edmonds is in a position to make a money move off a contract year. Edmonds has found a home in Kansas City, but the pull to seize a new opportunity might be too strong to pass up.

Smith has played for four different NWSL clubs across seven seasons. (Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY Sports)

Abby Smith, Portland Thorns

Perhaps flying a bit under the radar, Thorns backup goalkeeper Abby Smith might look for a club where she can compete for a starting job. Bella Bixby has all but sealed her place as the Thorns starter for the foreseeable future.

Smith has a wealth of NWSL experience and a track record that deserves a look from teams in need of a veteran presence between the sticks. Smith would be on any expansion team’s shortlist, but maybe the move comes a year early.

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