As the NWSL heads into the Olympic break, it's time to take stock of the players currently in contention for individual accolades by season's end.

Only 10 regular season games remain after the league's August 23rd return, despite this season being four games longer than last year's campaign.

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda in action during a NWSL match against Seattle Reign
Orlando's Barbra Banda is a strong NWSL Golden Boot award contender. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The NWSL Golden Boot award comes down to two

The league's Golden Boot frontrunners are well known, with Orlando's Barbra Banda and KC's Temwa Chawinga leading the pack.

At the moment, Chawinga has a slight edge on Banda even though both forwards are tied at 12 goals apiece: Chawinga has registered six assists to Banda's five, giving her the award's first tiebreaker. Banda, however, has racked up her goals in just 12 games, while Chawinga's tally has come over 16 games.

With 10 matches to go, Banda and Chawinga could be on pace to break former Chicago Red Star Sam Kerr's 18-goal single-season record.

NWSL Washington Spirit's Croix Bethune celebrates her stoppage-time equalizer against San Diego Wave FC
Washington's Croix Bethune is in the running for both the Rookie of the Year and NWSL MVP awards (Amber Searls/USA TODAY Sports)

NWSL MVP award is still anyone's game

While Banda and Chawinga are certainly shoo-ins for this year's MVP conversation, a few other players also deserve some attention.

Rookie of the Year favorite Coix Bethune leads the league in assists with a staggering nine while sitting tied for seventh in goals scored with five. 

USWNT stars Trinity Rodman and Sophia Smith should also be considered, as Rodman's passing and finishing continue to stand out while Smith's performance has resulted in 10 goals and six assists on the season.

NWSL goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger of NJ/NY Gotham FC stops the ball during a game against Bay FC
Late Gotham addition Ann-Katrin Berger might just snag the NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year award. (Karen Hickey/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Plenty of NWSL competition for defensive awards

Orlando and Gotham have the stoutest defenses in the league this year, with both Defender and Goalkeeper of the Year candidates in the mix.

Orlando defender Emily Sams has proven her versatility, playing outside back after entering the league as a center-back while also being called into her first USWNT camp.

Recently signed Gotham goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger might be behind in games played, but she's been statistically solid ever since joining the 2023 NWSL champions.

And don't count out two-time reigning Defender of the Year Naomi Girma, who has been consistently excellent even as San Diego's season has wavered.

Only one unbeaten NWSL team remains this season, after the Orlando Pride handed Kansas City their first loss of 2024 in Saturday's top-table clash.

Barbra Banda opened the scoring for the Pride while Brazil legend Marta slotted home a penalty to clinch the 2-1 win. The Current's Temwa Chawinga scored her 12th goal of the season in the loss, keeping pace with Banda atop the Golden Boot leaderboard.

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Orlando managed to pull out the win despite playing more than half the match down a player after defender Carrie Lawrence was shown a second yellow card in the 42nd minute.

The loss was Kansas City's first at future NWSL Championship host CPKC Stadium, their new purpose-built home, and broke their league-record 17-game unbeaten streak. Should they avoid a loss in their first regular season match after the NWSL's Olympic break, still-unbeaten Orlando is now poised to surpass that record.

With the Pride now sitting alone atop the league standings, other clubs strived for separation above the eight-team playoff line ahead of the international break.

After the weekend's games, six of the NWSL's top eight teams enter the Olympic period on a win: Washington, Gotham, Portland, North Carolina, and Chicago. Eighth-place Bay FC still holds the final playoff spot despite falling 3-0 to the Spirit on Saturday.

None of the teams currently sitting under the playoff line have registered a win in their last three regular season matches.

The NWSL will pause briefly before returning for the inaugural NWSL x Liga MX Femenil Summer Cup on July 19th. The regular season will pick back up again on August 23rd after the Paris Olympics conclude.

Pride star Barbra Banda continued on her historic NWSL trajectory this weekend, scoring twice in Orlando’s 6-0 win over Utah on Friday. 

She’s the first NWSL player to register 10 goals in their first 10 league appearances. It was also her fourth brace this season, and marked her first goals in two games after her first multi-game scoring drought.

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"For me when I have an opportunity and a chance, I have to take it wisely," Banda said in her postgame remarks. "When I get a chance, I have to put the ball in the back of the net. If any game I didn’t score, I just have to go to my drawing board and work hard so that in the next game so I can find a goal."

Meanwhile, Kansas City also kept up their winning ways, beating Portland 4-1 behind a brace from midfielder Lo'eau Labonta on Sunday.

Later that day, the Washington Spirit, who sit just a point behind KC in third place, topped fourth-place Gotham FC in a decisive 2-0 victory.

And after drawing with Seattle, eighth-place Louisville has 16 points on the season — representing a growing gap between the league’s top and bottom teams. Bringing up the bottom of the ladder, both Seattle and Utah have yet to surpass 10 points this year.

Just Women’s Sports is here with your daily World Cup Digest, breaking down all of the biggest storylines from each day of action in Australia and New Zealand.

Today’s top World Cup news: Close games highlight group play

With the Women’s World Cup field expanding from 24 teams to 32 ahead of this year’s tournament, some people questioned whether the inclusion of less experienced teams would result in huge, lopsided wins (à la the USWNT defeating Thailand 13-0 in 2019).

But after three days of competition in Australia and New Zealand, that concern hasn’t panned out. Five of the eight nations making their World Cup debut this year have played so far (Ireland, Zambia, Haiti, Vietnam and the Philippines), with only one of those games coming close to “blowout” status: Japan’s 5-0 win over Zambia on Saturday.

Ireland managed a 1-0 loss to host nation Australia, the Philippines lost 2-0 to Switzerland, Vietnam conceded just three goals to the top-ranked USWNT, and No. 53 Haiti held No. 4 England to a 1-0 result.

Ahead of the U.S.-Vietnam matchup, American captain Lindsey Horan was asked if the USWNT was going to “crush” Vietnam, like her team’s 13-0 result vs. Thailand four years ago.

“There are not easy games that before you were just like, oh, this is going to be 6-0, 7-0 or whatever,” Horan said. “It’s not how it is anymore.”

Haiti’s World Cup debut against England, the 2022 Euros champions, was an especially close game. England’s only goal came in the 29th minute after a VAR review showed the ball grazed the fingertips of Haiti’s Batcheba Louis inside the box. Georgia Stanway took the penalty and Haitian goalkeeper Kerly Théus initially pulled off a dramatic save — but was called for encroachment as she left the line before Stanway made contact with the ball. The penalty was re-awarded, and this time, Stanway found the back of the net.

While England controlled 75% of the possession throughout the match, Theus made one save after another to keep her team in the game. Haiti nearly found the equalizer in the 81st minute, with Haitian forward Roseline Eloissant forcing English goalkeeper Mary Earps to make a sprawling save.

Haitian midfielder Melchie Dumornay, 19, was especially impressive in her World Cup debut. The rising star is set to join club team Lyon after the World Cup concludes.

Today’s World Cup results

  • United States 3, Vietnam 0
  • Japan 5, Zambia 0
  • England 1, Haiti 0
  • Denmark 1, China 0

More World Cup news

  • ICYMI: The USWNT, the two-time defending World Cup champs, opened its title defense with a 3-0 win over Vietnam. Sophia Smith notched a historic brace in her World Cup debut.
  • Denmark — competing in its first Women’s World Cup in 16 years — defeated China 1-0 to join England at the top of Group D. Danish substitute Amalie Vangsgaard notched the game-winner in the 89th minute, her bouncing header sneaking past Chinese keeper Xu Huan.
  • Japan defeated Zambia 5-0, with a brace from Hinata Miyazawa. Zambian star Barbra Banda found herself marked by three Japanese defenders for much of the game, a tactic that paid off.

Zambia had already pulled off the improbable.

During Friday’s friendly match against Germany, Zambia — ranked No. 77 in the world by FIFA — was leading 2-0 heading into stoppage time.

But Germany, World No. 2 and one of the favorites heading into the 2023 Women’s World Cup, wasn’t going down without a fight. Lea Schueller scored a header in the first minute of stoppage time to make it 2-1. Nine minutes later, German captain Alexandra Popp scored what seemed to be the equalizer.

But Barbra Banda, the breakout star of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, had other plans. The Zambian captain capitalized on a poor throw-in from Germany’s Klara Buehl, out-sprinted her defender and launched the ball over German goalkeeper Merle Frohms.

Banda’s incredible goal — her second of the game — secured the 3-2 win for Zambia (video embedded below).

The win over Germany should give Zambia a confidence boost ahead of its first-ever Women’s World Cup appearance. Zambia will compete in Group C against Spain, Japan and Costa Rica.

Note: Following Friday’s World Cup send-off game, the Guardian reported that Zambian head coach Bruce Mwape has been accused of sexual misconduct and that the Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) referred an investigation to FIFA. You can read more about this development here.

The Zambia women’s national team clinched its first World Cup berth Wednesday with a win over Senegal in penalties, and the team did it without star Barbra Banda.

Zambia and Senegal played to a 1-1 draw, but Zambia took the victory with a 4-2 edge in penalties. Goalkeeper Hazel Nali scored the decisive penalty kick to send the team to the semifinals of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations and its first World Cup.

Yet the team has had to play the whole tournament without one of its best players in Banda. The 22-year-old was ruled ineligible after her testosterone levels were said to be above those allowed by the Confederation of African Football, ESPN reported.

“All the players had to undergo gender verification, a CAF requirement, and unfortunately she did not meet the criteria set by CAF,” Andrew Kamanga, the president of Zambia’s soccer federation, told BBC Sport Africa ahead of the Cup of Nations. “It’s unfortunate that we find ourselves going into the tournament without our best players.”

Her ineligibility for the tournament came after she competed at last year’s Tokyo Olympics. There, she became the first player to score back-to-back hat tricks in Olympic competition. After the Summer Games, though, the Zambian federation was informed that Banda’s testosterone levels were outside CAF guidelines, according to ESPN.

Banda was left off Zambia’s Cup of Nations roster after she opted not to take hormone-suppressing treatment, as did three other Zambian players, according to ESPN.

“Many players can be affected by these regulations, and football is their livelihood. I think the CAF regulations are a lot more stringent [than Olympic regulations], and they put too much stress on testosterone levels,” said Sydney Mungala, the communications director for Zambia’s soccer federation.

While a CAF official told the BBC’s Osasu Obayiuwana that Zambia never submitted Banda’s name for selection for the tournament, the Zambian soccer federation said in a news release it merely followed CAF guidance and decried CAF’s attempt to pass the blame as “grossly unfair.”

Zambia will face the winner of Thursday’s match between South Africa and Tunisia in the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations semifinals next Monday.

Barbra Banda, the captain of the Zambia women’s national soccer team, has been ruled ineligible for the Africa Cup of Nations after “gender verification” tests revealed natural testosterone levels above those allowed by the Confederation of African Football, according to ESPN’s Ed Dove.

“All the players had to undergo gender verification, a CAF requirement, and unfortunately she did not meet the criteria set by CAF,” Andrew Kamanga, the president of Zambia’s soccer federation, told BBC Sport Africa. “It’s unfortunate that we find ourselves going into the tournament without our best players.”

The 22-year-old played in last year’s Olympics, becoming the first player to score back-to-back hat tricks in the tournament. After the Olympics, though, the Zambian federation was informed that Banda’s testosterone levels were outside CAF guidelines, which follow those developed by FIFA, according to officials.

In the aftermath of Banda being ruled ineligible for the Cup of Nations, conflicting reports have emerged over whether Banda took hormone-suppressing medication to try to meet the requirements.

BBC Sport Africa reported that Banda was included on the Cup of Nations roster after taking medication to reduce her testosterone levels, but she did not meet the limits for the tournament. Per ESPN, though, the communications director for Zambia’s soccer federation said Banda and several other players declined treatment.

“With the players not going down that route and taking up that option, the final decision was that they could not be included in the final list for the competition,” communications director Sydney Mungala said.

During Sunday’s opener, Banda was listed as “unavailable” for “medical reasons.”

She was one of four players omitted from the roster due to “gender eligibility” rules, per ESPN and BBC Sport. As a result, Zambia is carrying 22 players into this year’s tournament rather than the permitted 26.

Barbra Banda is having a moment.

The Zambian striker notched back-to-back hat tricks in the country’s first two group stage matches against the Netherlands and China. She is the first player to ever score multiple hat tricks in a single Olympic Games, and she did it in consecutive matches.

Banda opened the scoring in the 19th minute of the Netherlands game, scoring Zambia’s first-ever Olympic goal. The captain’s heroic efforts provided a silver lining for Zambia, who fell to the Netherlands 10-3 on Wednesday.

Zambia and Banda bounced back after the loss, fighting to a 4-4 draw with China on Saturday. Banda’s second hat trick of the tournament catapulted her to the top of Tokyo’s scoring charts.

Zambia will play for a spot in the knockout rounds when they face Brazil on Tuesday.