Sophia Smith is looking to run it back as NWSL MVP, as the Portland Thorns star is nominated for the top individual award for the second straight season.

In 2022, Smith became the youngest MVP in the history of the league. The 23-year-old has built a solid case for the 2023 award, leading the league with 11 goals and winning the Golden Boot award. But the Portland Thorns forward also missed significant time due to the World Cup and a knee injury.

That opens the doors for other candidates, including San Diego Wave defender Naomi Girma. Another repeat MVP finalist, Girma won the Defender of the Year and Rookie of the Year awards in 2022.

Another top candidate: North Carolina Courage star Kerolin, Just Women’s Sports‘ pick for the award. Kerolin, Girma and Smith are joined by Kansas City Current forward Debinha and Thorns midfielder Sam Coffey.

Girma also is nominated once again for the Defender of the Year award. But repeating could prove a challenge, as both Gotham FC captain Ali Krieger and Washington Spirit star Sam Staab have had outstanding defensive seasons. Kaleigh Kurtz and Sarah Gorden round out the nominees.

Alyssa Thompson, meanwhile, leads the Rookie of the Year candidates, having lived up to the hype as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NWSL draft.

She is joined by Messiah Bright of the Orlando Pride and Jenna Nighswonger of Gotham FC. Bright is Just Women’s Sports’ pick for Rookie of the Year after finishing with six goals on the season and proving wrong everyone who passed her over in the draft.

Both Angel City’s Becki Tweed and Gotham FC’s Juan Carolos Amorós challenge for Coach of the Year, as does San Diego Wave’s Casey Stoney – to no surprise.

The choice between Katie Lund of Racing Louisville, Jane Campbell of the Houston Dash and Kailen Sheridan of the San Diego Wave for Goalkeeper of the Year is a tough one, although Lund has had a solid year and is Just Women’s Sports’ pick. Sheridan is looking to repeat as winner.

NWSL fans can vote on the award winners via online ballot any time before 12 p.m. ET Friday. The NWSL uses a weighted voting formula — 40% from players, 25% from owners, general managers and coaches, 25% from media and 10% from fans.

2023 NWSL award nominees

Kerolin scored 10 goals for the North Carolina Courage in 2023. (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

Most Valuable Player

  • Sam Coffey, Portland Thorns
  • Debinha, Kansas City Current
  • Naomi Girma, San Diego Wave
  • Kerolin, North Carolina Courage
  • Sophia Smith, Portland Thorns
Naomi Girma won Defender of the Year as a rookie in 2022. (Justin Fine/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Defender of the Year

  • Naomi Girma, San Diego Wave
  • Sarah Gorden, Angel City FC
  • Ali Krieger, Gotham FC
  • Kaleigh Kurtz, North Carolina Courage
  • Sam Staab, Washington Spirit
Katie Lund had a stellar season for Racing Louisville. (EM Dash/USA TODAY Sports)

Goalkeeper of the Year

  • Jane Campbell, Houston Dash
  • Katie Lund, Racing Louisville
  • Kailen Sheridan, San Diego Wave
Messiah Bright scored six goals in her first season with the Orlando Pride. (Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

Rookie of the Year

  • Messiah Bright, Orlando Pride
  • Jenna Nighswonger, Gotham FC
  • Alyssa Thompson, Angel City FC
Interim head coach Becki Tweed led Angel City FC to a playoff spot. (Kiyoshi Mio/USA TODAY Sports)

Coach of the Year

  • Juan Carlos Amorós, Gotham FC
  • Casey Stoney, San Diego Wave
  • Becki Tweed, Angel City FC

Before the 2023 NWSL season began, the Kansas City Current looked ready to build on their run to the 2022 NWSL championship game. The team that made it all the way to the final before falling to the Portland Thorns used the offseason to add depth and looked poised to become the favorites in most matchups, rather than the plucky underdogs.

What happened instead was that the Current became the first team to be eliminated from 2023 playoff contention, likely to finish in either 11th or 12th after the final weekend of the season. A run to the Challenge Cup semifinals notwithstanding (and the organization’s continuously impressive attendance numbers), the season was a disappointment for a team that openly wants to contend for every trophy the NWSL offers.

Was the Current’s problem bad luck or execution? Or were their offseason moves just not as strong as many (myself included) believed? Let’s dive in.

The Lynn Williams trade

In one of the biggest moves of the offseason, Kansas City traded Lynn Williams to Gotham FC in January for the second pick in the 2023 NWSL draft. With the selection, the Current took 20-year-old Michelle Cooper, who was fresh off a standout sophomore season at Duke. The move shocked many, including Williams herself, but the Current had opted for a younger prospect with Williams coming off a long-term hamstring injury.

It’s not fair to directly compare a young NWSL rookie with a veteran counterpart, but Kansas City certainly missed Williams’ output in 2023. In all competitions, Williams has averaged a personal xG of 0.39 per game, scoring nine goals and registering two assists between the regular season and the Challenge Cup. Cooper, while a longer-term project, averaged a personal xG of 0.27 in all competitions, scoring four goals and notching two assists.

Williams also proved to be a distinctly important player in Gotham’s pressing system, immediately making an impact in new manager Juan Carlos Amorós’ style of play that favors one of the best defensive attackers in the league. The 30-year-old looked as comfortable as ever coming back from injury, adjusting to her role at center forward very quickly.

Cooper grew into her season, with an impressive commitment to team defending, and she’ll likely continue to develop into a clinical finisher. But the Current did not see the dividends of their major trade in the same way that Gotham benefitted in 2023.

Lynn Williams is tied for fourth in the NWSL Golden Boot race with seven goals for Gotham in 2023. (Jonathan Jones/USA TODAY Sports)

Free agency fitness struggles

Few teams walked away from the 2023 offseason with more excitement than the Current, who were very ambitious in both their draft strategy and their free agency pick-ups. Kansas City signed Brazilian midfielder Debinha away from North Carolina, which was widely considered the biggest splash of the NWSL’s first-ever free agency period.

They also signed Vanessa DiBernardo and Morgan Gautrat out of Chicago, picked up Swedish international Hanna Glas and re-signed Canada international Desiree Scott. With NWSL clubs able to shape rosters outside of discovery signings or the college draft for the first time this past year, the Current became a team to beat before games began in 2023.

The season played out much differently, however. The Current struggled mightily with injuries: Debinha had a slow start to the season, and Dibernardo and Gautrat never got consistently healthy. Glas, coming off an ACL injury, has yet to make an appearance for the club. The injury bug also extended to other starters, including defender Elizabeth Ball, whose crucial absence resulted in a steep learning curve for a very young backline early in the season.

Kansas City boasts one of the best training facilities in women’s soccer and likely has many learnings to take into 2024 after failing to meet expectations in their third season of NWSL play.

Commitment to coaching

When Kansas City started the 2023 season 0-3, ownership made the swift decision to dismiss head coach Matt Potter, who had led the team to a surprise championship appearance the prior year. Not unlike the Williams trade, bold decision-making appeared to stem from team owners and general manager Camille Ashton. At the time, Potter’s dismissal was chalked up to results and a “lack of collaboration” when others in the front office tried to right the ship.

Assistant coach Caroline Sjöblom took over as interim manager after Potter’s departure and has been a steady presence, even if the team’s regular season results never got a significant boost from the change. Little has been said about Sjöblom’s candidacy for the permanent position once the season is over, but what has appeared to be a methodical coaching search likely also put a limit on what the team could achieve in 2023.

The team may well make a big hiring splash in the offseason — rumors have long swirled around former USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski, who won two NWSL Championships as head coach of FC Kansas City and still lives in Kansas City. But firing a head coach three games into a regular season and then riding out the rest of the year with an interim manager could also be perceived as indecision following an impulsive move.

The Current haven’t lost their potential for greatness, having shown a new resilience and reinvigorated offense in recent weeks, including a six-goal output against Chicago last weekend. But they’re also dealing with more upheaval than they could have expected at this point, with an expansion draft approaching. Whether they’ll make slight tweaks or more bold moves remains to be seen.

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

Sophia Smith returned to NWSL play over the weekend. And while she didn’t score a goal to extend her lead in the NWSL Golden Boot race, nobody within striking distance of her 11-goal tally did either.

There’s just one game remaining in the regular season, meaning that Kerolin would need to score a brace in order to secure the Golden Boot. Both Ashley Hatch and Debinha would need a hat trick, as Smith’s five assists still put her ahead in the tiebreak.

The Portland Thorns star entered her team’s 1-0 win over Gotham FC on Saturday in the 83rd minute, marking her first NWSL appearance in 41 days after suffering a mild MCL sprain on Aug. 28. And she’s returned in a good place, with Portland atop the NWSL rankings and her atop the Golden Boot race.

Add a point: Debinha

Debinha was one of six players to get in on the scoring onslaught for Kansas City in their 6-3 win over Chicago on Saturday. Debinha’s goal was the team’s fourth of the match and came just after halftime. It was also the ninth of the season for the Brazilian star, pulling her into a tie for third with Hatch.

No other Golden Boot leaders scored over the weekend, making the race for the award a bit clearer as the NWSL heads into the final games of the regular season.

One for the future: Alyssa Thompson

While 18-year-old Jaedyn Shaw leads all teenagers this season in scoring, another 18-year-old provided an immediate and much-needed boost for Angel City in their 2-1 comeback win on Sunday night. Thompson’s goal in the 68th minute, coming not long after after she entered the game as a substitute, pulled Angel City level and set them up to keep their playoff hopes alive.

It also added to a record-breaking season for teenagers in the league, with players 18 and younger scoring 13 total goals in 2023, more than the goals scored by that age group in 10 years combined. Shaw leads them all with five, but Thompson now has four — which also makes her Angel City’s scoring leader this season.

NWSL leaderboard

  • 11 goals
    • Sophia Smith, Portland Thorns
  • 10 goals
    • Kerolin, North Carolina Courage
  • 9 goals
    • Ashley Hatch, Washington Spirit
    • Debinha, Kansas City Current
  • 7 goals
    • Lynn Williams, Gotham FC
    • Morgan Weaver, Portland Thorns
  • 6 goals
    • Messiah Bright, Orlando Pride
    • Bethany Balcer, OL Reign
    • Adriana, Orlando Pride
    • Alex Morgan, San Diego Wave
  • 5 goals
    • Savannah DeMelo, Racing Louisville
    • Crystal Dunn, Portland Thorns
    • Cece Kizer, Kansas City Current
    • Tyler Lussi, North Carolina Courage
    • Ashley Sanchez, Washington Spirit
    • Jordyn Huitema, OL Reign
    • Jaedyn Shaw, San Diego Wave

Alex Morgan is the top player in the NWSL in the “EA Sports FC 24” ratings.

The top soccer video game released its player ratings ahead of its release on Sept. 29, and the 34-year-old star striker for the U.S. women’s national team and San Diego Wave leads all players in the U.S. league. She also ranks as the only USWNT player in the top 10 across all women’s leagues.

Among NWSL players, Morgan sits in first place with a score of 89, while Kansas City Current forward Debinha comes in a close second with a rating of 88. Sophia Smith is tied with Debinha at 88, while Rose Lavelle is in fourth at 87.

The Portland Thorns have the most players among the top 10 with three, while OL Reign and San Diego each have two players.

Across all players, Morgan sits tied for fifth and Debinha tied for ninth. Spain’s Alexia Putellas holds the top spot by herself with a score of 91. She is followed closely by her Spain teammate Aitana Bonmatí, Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen and Australia’s Sam Kerr who all have scores of 90.

Morgan also had been the lone USWNT player in the top 10 of EA Sports’ 2023 Women’s World Cup player ratings.

EA Sports FC: International women’s player ratings

  1. Alexia Putellas, Spain – 91
  2. Aitana Bonmatí, Spain – 90
  3. Caroline Graham Hansen, Norway – 90
  4. Sam Kerr, Australia – 90
  5. Kadidiatou Diani, France – 89
  6. Ada Hegerberg, Norway – 89
  7. Mapi León, Spain – 89
  8. Alex Morgan, United States – 89
  9. Debinha, Brazil – 88
  10. Marie-Antoinette Katoto, France – 88

EA Sports FC: NWSL player ratings

  1. Alex Morgan, San Diego Wave FC – 89
  2. Debinha, Kansas City Current – 88
  3. Sophia Smith, Portland Thorns – 88
  4. Rose Lavelle, OL Reign – 87
  5. Mallory Swanson, Chicago Red Stars – 86
  6. Becky Sauerbrunn, Portland Thorns – 85
  7. Megan Rapinoe, OL Reign – 85
  8. Amandine Henry, Angel City – 85
  9. Kailen Sheridan, San Diego Wave FC – 85
  10. Crystal Dunn, Portland Thorns – 84

Sophia Smith stands as the lone U.S. women’s national team player among the 30 nominees for the 2023 Ballon d’Or Féminin.

The Portland Thorns star led the NWSL and the USWNT in goals in 2022, with 18 for her club team and 11 for her country. The NWSL MVP also helped lead her team to the 2022 championship. While the 23-year-old is dealing with a post-World Cup knee injury, she again leads the NWSL Golden Boot race with 11 goals.

No other USWNT player made the long list for the prestigious award, presented by “France Football” magazine. And just one other NWSL player — Brazil and Kansas City Current forward Debinha — made the cut.

Among professional leagues, England’s Women’s Super League led the way with 12 players, followed by Spain’s Liga F with 10. Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga followed with four, and then the NWSL and France’s Division 1 Féminine with two. Among club teams, Spain’s FC Barcelona led the way with six.

Spain (6) and England (4) were the only national teams with more than two players on the list.

Spain’s contingent included Aitana Bonmatí, who won the World Cup Golden Ball, and Olga Carmona, who scored the game-winning goal against England in the tournament final. England’s nominees included captain Millie Bright and goalkeeper Mary Earps.

One notable name not on the list: Spain’s Alexia Putellas, who won the trophy in 2021 and 2022. The 29-year-old spent most of the last year recovering from an ACL tear, though she did return for Spain at the World Cup. England’s Beth Mead, who finished in second place, did not make the list either due to her own ACL tear last November.

The NWSL playoffs are less than two months away, and the Golden Boot race is tighter than ever.

Just five goals separate the top five places in the standings. Last year’s league MVP Sophia Smith leads the way with 11 goals, while Ashley Hatch (8), Kerolin (8) and Lynn Williams (7) round out the top four. But who will win? Just Women’s Sports is taking a look at the front-runners. First up: Ashley Hatch.

Hatch won the 2021 Golden Boot with nine goals. She already has matched that total this season with five regular season games left to go. And she just scored on a penalty kick to pull the Spirit level with Portland in the 90th minute of Sunday’s 1-1 draw.

“We knew coming into this game that it was going to be a high-energy day, just with all of our fans and the whole team back together,” Hatch said. “So we wanted to start the game off strong. Maybe if we had put one away earlier it would have helped us, but I’m proud of how the team played today.”

Still, the goal marked her third result-changing penalty in stoppage time in her NWSL career, which puts her ahead of every other player in league history, according to OptaJack.

The goal came after Hatch put on a show during the World Cup break after her USWNT roster snub. The 28-year-old forward scored in the Spirit’s last regular-season match before the break, then scored two in a Challenge Cup match against Gotham FC on July 28. Those Challenge Cup goals don’t count toward her Golden Boot total, but they underline her impressive scoring run this season.

In four consecutive seasons with the Spirit, Hatch has scored at least seven goals. The only player to score more in the NWSL since 2021 is Smith. And this season, Hatch has been right back at her best, with 41 shots and 24 shots on goal, both of which sit third in the league. Her 0.70 expected goals (xG) per game in 2023 ranks as the best in the league, ahead of the Golden Boot leader.

And with Smith facing down a potentially serious knee injury, Hatch could be the favorite for the 2023 Golden Boot title.

With the end of April comes the near quarter-mark of the 2023 NWSL season. The first full month of the regular season brought attacking fireworks, a few key saves and a number of excellent individual performances that deserve recognition.

One player stood out above all the rest, earning our first Player of the Month honor of the season.

Sophia Smith, F, Portland Thorns

Smith started the NWSL season on fire, finishing April as one of only three players to lead the league with four goals in five games. She also leads the league in assists with four, twice as many as the next highest player. With Smith at the helm, the Thorns currently sit alone atop the NWSL standings, still undefeated in regular season play with the greatest goal differential in the league.

In addition to the USWNT star’s first career hat trick against Kansas City on April 1, her other stats support just what a goal-scoring machine she has been for the Thorns in their first five games. Smith leads the league in shots and shots on goal, she’s generated the highest individual xG percentage, and she sits atop American Soccer Analysis’ goals added (g+) estimation by more than three times the amount of the next contender

Simply put, Smith has made it more likely for her team to score goals and earn points than any other player in the league thus far, emphatically earning her Player of the Month honors.

Honorable mentions

April featured many impressive attacking performances, with a number of teams getting results from established stars, some of whom are in new systems with new clubs.

Lynn Williams, F, Gotham FC

Williams has reshaped the Gotham FC attack since coming over in a January trade, scoring three goals in five games. Less than a quarter of the way into the season, Williams has matched the individual scoring output of any Gotham player in 2022.

Jess Fishlock, M, OL Reign

The 2021 NWSL MVP has looked like her typically excellent self in 2023, scoring a brace against the Chicago Red Stars on April 22 while generating attacking chances that have the Reign sitting in second place in the NWSL standings.

Debinha, M, Kansas City Current

Debinha has come on strong late in the month, after working her minutes back up from a lingering injury. She joins Smith and Ashley Hatch as the only players to score four goals thus far, including a brace in Kansas City’s 2-0 win over Gotham on the last day of April.

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

On Wednesday afternoon, the Kansas City Current abruptly parted ways with second-year head coach Matt Potter. The decision was “related to issues around his leadership and employment responsibilities,” the club said in a release.

“We watch the play on the pitch, we keep a pulse on the locker room, and we are constantly evaluating ways to improve our club,” said general manager Camille Ashton. “Through our ongoing process of continuous improvement, we believe now is the right time for this change.”

Assistant coach Caroline Sjöblom will take over as interim head coach, including for the Current’s Challenge Cup opener Wednesday night against the Houston Dash.

While the terms of Potter’s termination haven’t yet been made clear, to say that Kansas City’s start to the 2023 season did not go as planned would be an understatement.

In the wake of a very active offseason, this appeared to be the year the Kansas City Current would level up. After going on an underdog run all the way to the 2022 NWSL final, the Current took the league’s first free-agency period very seriously, picking up a number of top players who tested their value on the open market.

The Current acquired Brazilian superstar Debinha and Chicago midfielders Morgan Gautrat and Vanessa DiBernardo through free agency. They followed that up by drafting USWNT U-20 forward Michelle Cooper and Virginia standout Alexa Spaanstra through the draft, and signing Swedish defender Hanna Glas. Suddenly the task at hand was to get the best out of a stacked group, rather than getting a scrappy team to punch above their weight.

Amid high expectations, Kansas City has begun the NWSL season with three losses, in which they’ve conceded nine goals while only scoring three of their own. Most recently, the Current allowed four goals apiece to the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars. While the Current have time to right the ship after parting ways with their head coach, it’s also possible that an early run of bad luck could disrupt their plans for the rest of the season.

Ill-timed injury bug

One explanation for the Current’s early struggles is an obvious one: health. Kansas City began the season with Debinha, DiBernardo, Gautrat, Glas and Kristen Hamilton all out with injuries, while Desiree Scott, Claire Lavogez and Sam Mewis continue to recover from their own long-term injuries.

The Kansas City team that kicked off the 2023 season in North Carolina didn’t necessarily reflect the roster they had so painstakingly constructed, with rookies thrown into the fire instead of veterans steadily integrating into the lineup and bolstering the squad. Adding to the Current’s injury woes was the loss of defender Elizabeth Ball in the team’s first regular season game, affecting the position with the least amount of depth.

While DiBernardo and Debinha have returned to the midfield, Kansas City’s defense has had to continuously adjust to a lack of personnel. The team has relied heavily on rookie Gabby Robinson and signed undrafted defender Croix Soto recently to provide emergency depth.

Hamilton’s absence has also proved challenging, as the team has struggled to turn positive play into the payoff of goals. The Current are at their best when their midfield is set up to generate goals, a system that enabled Lo’eau Labonta to have a breakout 2022 season as both a playmaker and a goal-scorer.

As the team works their new midfield pieces onto the field, a fair amount of weight has been placed on the shoulders of rookie Michelle Cooper, who is still honing her work rate and shot generation into quality opportunities. The Kansas City frontline hasn’t had enough time to gel, and Hamilton’s eventual return could make a huge difference.

Debinha was Kansas City's biggest free-agent acquisition this offseason. (Patrick Gorski/USA TODAY Sports)

Adjustments on the fly

With so many players missing, Potter had tinkered with his team’s formation, moving away from the high-risk, high-reward patterns of a three-back in favor of something more traditional. The team came out in their season opener in a four-back defense, progressing the ball through a fluid 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 formation. The system gave them the basic structure they needed while managing so many changes in personnel.

Potter admitted the changes didn’t necessarily reflect the way the Current want to play when all of their heavy-hitters are available, but the adjustments also haven’t shaped results in the way they had hoped. Hailie Mace and Kate Del Fava, who excelled last year as wingbacks pushing the team forward in attack, have focused more on defense as traditional outside backs, limiting the team’s ability to create overloads on the wings.

When the Current did move the ball quickly in their most recent match — a 4-2 loss to the Red Stars — rather than play through their formidable midfield to hold the ball and make the Red Stars chase, Kansas City stretched the game with longer passes over the top. When challenged by the Chicago defense, they committed turnovers that quickly sent the ball in the other direction and caught the Kansas City defense lacking numbers in support. Those situations led to scoring opportunities (on admittedly well-taken shots) for their opponent.

Getting away from the system that worked for them in 2022 has led to quick defensive breakdowns, including goals allowed in the first five minutes of their last two matches, and made it difficult for their attack to recover. It’s possible that shots simply need to start landing for Kansas City’s front three, but a commitment to one system might serve them better as the season progresses.

Relying on identity

Player health (to say nothing of stability at the head coaching position) will be the most significant factor in the Current beginning to turn results around. But even in this week’s loss, you could see progress being made. Debinha’s excellent chip goal after sneaking in behind the Chicago backline showed just how dangerous Kansas City’s attacking midfield can be once players get used to each other’s movements on a consistent basis.

The Current aren’t currently set up to make significant adjustments to their defense, but a never-say-die mentality combined with an ability to score in transition served the team well in 2022 and could be the key to getting back to basics. The Current are not a conservative team at heart. They might be best served abandoning the structure they’re unfamiliar with and instead letting games play out, with the belief that their midfield advantages will win out.

In other words, the Current of 2023 might benefit from looking a bit more like the Current of 2022. The team’s defense might continue to deal with moments of pressure, but getting their fire back could go a long way.

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

Every NWSL offseason comes with player movement, but the months leading up to the 2023 season reflected a new era of player choice. The league’s first free-agency period saw many top players leaving for new environments and teams making a few surprising moves themselves.

Almost every NWSL roster will look different in 2023, with the potential for dramatic returns as teams meet for the first time in the regular season.

Don’t look now, but revenge season might be upon us. Here are the games to circle on your calendar.

March 25: Kansas City Current at North Carolina Courage

The first game of the NWSL regular season wastes no time in getting into one of the most dramatic narratives of the offseason. The Kansas City Current were the big winners of the league’s free-agency period and feature heavily on this list as players take on their former teams.

First up, two-time NWSL champion Debinha returns to the home of the North Carolina Courage in her first game after a high-profile move to Kansas City. Courage head coach Sean Nahas said at the 2023 draft that they had made serious overtures to the Brazilian superstar to try to convince her to stay with her club of five years, and her playmaking ability will surely be missed in North Carolina.

The Current come into the season with high expectations. Debinha appeared to pick up a knock in preseason that might limit her availability for this game. Regardless, the opening match against her former teammates (and current Brazil teammate Kerolin) will be a battle that sets the tone for Kansas City’s ceiling in 2023.

Emily Sonnett was a part of Washington's 2021 NWSL championship run. (Ira L. Black/Getty Images)

March 26: OL Reign at Washington Spirit

OL Reign travels to Washington D.C. on opening weekend, with a few chips on their shoulder to shake off. The Spirit famously ended the Reign’s postseason dreams in 2021 before going on to win the club’s first NWSL Championship. Prior to that, Rose Lavelle found her NWSL rights abruptly sent to Seattle from Washington while playing for Manchester City, a move she said surprised her at the time.

More recently, Washington unexpectedly sent another USWNT mainstay to the Pacific Northwest, completing a draft-day trade that dealt Emily Sonnett to OL Reign. The trade came about quickly, with new Spirit head coach Mark Parsons making a move to address what he referred to as a “structural” imbalance to his roster. This is the second time Parsons has traded Sonnett to a new team, first sending her to the Orlando Pride when he was the head coach of the Portland Thorns.

The Reign had a consistent partnership between Alana Cook and Sam Hiatt in the central defense in 2022, so it will be interesting to see how Sonnett is deployed. No matter, the potential revenge factor in this one is sky high.

April 15: Kansas City Current at Chicago Red Stars

There’s nothing like facing your former captain at home. Vanessa DiBernardo was a Chicago Red Star for eight years, and most recently their captain, before leaving for the Current in her first year of free agency. She was joined by former Chicago teammate Morgan Gautrat, who had played for the Red Stars for five years.

Both midfielders played in multiple NWSL finals with Chicago but decided to sign with a stacked Kansas City roster still in search of their first piece of hardware. The Red Stars team they left behind is now rebuilding around star striker Mallory Swanson after a tumultuous few years behind the scenes. Chicago will want to prove themselves against one of the deepest teams in the league and show what life looks like after the departure of a number of their veterans.

Kansas City used the pick they acquired in the Lynn Williams trade to select Michelle Cooper at No. 2. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

April 30: Gotham FC at Kansas City Current

Lynn Williams never registered regular-season minutes for the Current, but this matchup has the potential for revenge nonetheless. Kansas City traded Williams to Gotham FC right as she made her return to the field with the USWNT, after a serious hamstring issue kept her sidelined in 2022.

Relinquishing Williams likely freed up salary cap space for the Current’s stacked midfield and also for rookie Michelle Cooper, whose prowess at Duke made her a clear target for Kansas City with the No. 2 pick in the draft. Cooper is untested at the professional level, meaning this particular game could become a referendum on veteran experience over rookie ceiling.

Gotham will likely be in revenge mode as a team, looking to improve upon their league-worst finish in 2022 and showcase their own offseason moves. If Kansas City is the standard, Gotham will want to rise to meet it.

May 27: North Carolina Courage at Racing Louisville

The offseason’s other surprising trade also involved North Carolina, with the Courage sending Carson Pickett and longtime captain Abby Erceg to Louisville in exchange for rising USWNT outside back Emily Fox. In soccer terms, the trade made some sense for both teams, but the unceremonious end to Erceg’s time at the club where she won multiple championships wasn’t lost on the center back.

Both teams will be eager to show off how they’ve honed their roster in the offseason, with North Carolina attempting to rise back to the upper echelon of the NWSL and Racing Louisville pushing for their first-ever playoff spot. The addition of Erceg and Pickett radically changes the outlook of Louisville’s defense, and they’ll have extra motivation to keep the Courage off the scoresheet. At the other end of the field, Fox is working her way into an assured U.S. roster spot for the 2023 World Cup and will want to excel with the same freedom on the pitch that she had in Louisville.

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

After finishing in last place in their inaugural season in 2021, Kansas City rode the underdog mindset in 2022. Head coach Matt Potter and general manager Cami Levin Ashton made a few important tweaks to a young group in order to peak at the right time and make it all the way to the NWSL Championship.

In 2023, the underdog label is far behind the Current, who signed some of the NWSL’s biggest free agents in the offseason. With full buy-in from ambitious ownership, the Current have become one of the premier destinations for professional women’s soccer players in the U.S. in only three years. But after a successful 2022 season, how will the team’s chemistry withstand all the new additions?

2022 review: Underdog energy

The Kansas City Current of 2022 played a cohesive, sometimes chaotic style of soccer that other teams found difficult to break down. While they weren’t immune to conceding first, they almost always found a way to come back to challenge for a result.

The team played in an expansive 3-5-2 formation, with three center-backs behind a high-flying midfield that moved the ball quickly and found space for their attackers. A number of young and relatively inexperienced players helped reset the team’s culture, with key veterans like Lo’eau Labonta and AD Franch setting the tone.

The team committed to the grind of the NWSL season early on with a preseason process they’re using again this year. Labonta told reporters in February that the heavy lift days the team holds in Florida in the preseason are a “rite of passage” and that the time spent in camp set them in the right direction in 2022.

“Matt [Potter] has actually given credit to us being here and grinding here for why we’re able to make it so far in the league last year,” Labonta said. “I think it’s true.”

The Current ultimately finished fourth in the regular-season standings, a vast improvement from their league-worst finish in 2021. Their style of play proved perfect for the NWSL’s knockout playoffs, as they advanced past the Houston Dash and then Shield winners OL Reign. A collective never-say-die attitude took them all the way to the 2022 NWSL final, where their inexperience showed in a 2-0 defeat to a Portland Thorns team ready for the big moment.

The Current made the biggest splash of free agency, signing midfielder Debinha. (Jaylynn Nash/USA TODAY Sports)

Offseason moves: Building a superteam

Rather than running it back with the benefit of hard-earned experience, the Current appeared unsatisfied with being runner-up. In the offseason, Levin Ashton took a clinical approach to push the roster to the next level, re-negotiating Sam Mewis’ contract as she continues to rehab her knee and abruptly sending Lynn Williams to Gotham FC in order to make room for other players.

The Current signed Vanessa DiBernardo and Morgan Gautrat away from Chicago, traded up for No. 2 draft pick Michelle Cooper and, most crucially, won the bidding war for Brazilian superstar Debinha. They’ve since also signed top Swedish outside back Hanna Glas.

Players have noted the club’s resources and facilities as some of the best in the world. But the decision to move Williams, in a trade the USWNT forward called “shocking,” also showcased the ruthlessness the team feels is necessary to improve in the long term.

Potter said he declined to bring non-roster invitees into Kansas City’s 2023 camp — reversing a common practice among NWSL teams — because making the 28-player roster (24 first-team and four supplemental) is going to be difficult enough for draft picks and other acquisitions.

“To be perfectly honest, there was an opportunity to bring in more players, but it would only be false hope for them,” he said. “Because the reality is to make this roster even with the players that we have here, it’s going to be super competitive.”

Early in preseason, Labonta wasn’t worried about the locker room being disrupted by big-name players.

“I actually had a meeting with Matt yesterday, and I was just saying that this team already, we have great human beings,” she said. “There’s not one bad person on this team.”

As for team rules, they’re keeping it simple: “Don’t be late, don’t leave your gear around. That’s literally it. That’s all that we have to enforce,” Labonta said.

Lo'eau Labonta and the Current thrived on their team chemistry last season. (Amy Kontras/USA TODAY Sports)

2023 Outlook: Keeping the culture

While spirits are high in Kansas City, ambitious offseasons also present challenges in player management. Some players who carried the load last year were waived or traded in the offseason, and others who remain are going to see their roles on the team reduced when the roster is at full strength.

Even Labonta, one of the team’s breakout stars of 2022, has a new level of competition at her position.

“I think a lot of the people saw in the offseason signings, we signed about 12,000 midfielders — that’s my position — but it only makes it so much more competitive,” she said.

The team does have positional imbalances, having loaded up on central midfielders and wide defenders in the offseason. They lost defender Kristen Edmonds to free agency and will have to control games through the prowess of the midfield so they don’t get into high-risk shootouts. The Current should be well-positioned for the World Cup period — when they will be without Glas, Debinha and likely Franch — thanks to an influx of players who are used to participating in other teams’ systems and can get up to speed quickly.

No matter what, Kansas City players will be in fierce competition for playing time, with the hope that their deep midfield can score enough goals to compensate for vulnerabilities in the central defense.

“We talk often about competition being about striving together,” Potter said. “How can we, whoever’s out there, take the mantle of what we have as a team identity and express that for something bigger than ourselves?”

The NWSL has a history of the best team on paper not always being the squad that hoists the trophy at the end of the season. The Current are taking a very different approach than what worked for them last year, but if they can get the balance right, they might become unbeatable once the playoffs roll around.

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