With five games remaining in the NWSL regular season, the players who have excelled in 2023 are beginning to wrap up their individual awards campaigns. While the 2023 World Cup took a number of stars away from their squads, a well-timed Challenge Cup break allowed many to miss as few regular season matches as possible, making the awards race as compelling as ever.

As we head into the home stretch of the season, here’s how my current NWSL awards ballot is shaping up.

MVP: Sophia Smith, Portland Thorns

Shortlist: Kerolin, Adriana, Sam Coffey

While Smith has missed a few regular season games due to the World Cup (and may miss more due to an MCL sprain), she has once again been a standout among many in 2023. She leads the league in goals scored with 11, in addition to an impressive tally of five assists. Her dribbling abilities are unmatched, as teams build their entire game plans around trying to stop her from running in on goal to little avail.

If Smith misses the rest of the season due to her injury, the scales might tip out of her favor simply due to availability. But based on her per-game 90-minute impact, she is worthy of the MVP trophy for a second straight year.

Defender of the Year: Sam Staab, Washington Spirit

Shortlist: Sarah Gorden, Ali Krieger, Michelle Alozie

Sam Staab is such a steady presence along the Washington Spirit backline that at times she undeservedly fades into the background of the awards conversation. Partnering with first-time center-back Tara McKeown, she is the anchor of a defense that has undergone extensive change in recent years. While Washington’s defense hasn’t been perfect this year, Staab consistently controls space while playing a key role in the Spirit’s ball progression, including long-ball distribution.

Washington’s defense has tightened up in the second half of the season, giving Staab my nod over players in more staunch units. She’s been one of the better center-backs in the league for years, and 2023 is no different.

(Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports)

Goalkeeper of the Year: Katie Lund, Racing Louisville

Shortlist: Kailen Sheridan, Aubrey Kingsbury, Abby Smith

Katie Lund has been overlooked for major postseason awards due to Louisville’s difficulty with getting above the playoff line, but 2023 should be her year. She’s consistently one of the best shot-stoppers in the league, excelling both when Louisville’s defense is struggling and when she has seasoned veterans like Abby Erceg in front of her. Lund leads the NWSL in saves and leads the league’s goalkeepers in American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric, based on her elite ability to stop shots.

Louisville increasingly looks like a team with a number of stars that can’t quite find the winning combination to contend for the playoffs, but Lund has been a steady standout for years.

Coach of the Year: Becki Tweed, Angel City

Shortlist: Juan Carlos Amorós, Mark Parsons, Sean Nahas

It’s unconventional to put an interim manager up for Coach of the Year, but Becki Tweed has flipped the script. Tweed has only been in charge of Angel City since June 14, after the club parted ways with Freya Coombe, but her ability to build off the team’s foundation has been impressive to witness. The squad is currently undefeated under her management, without having drastically changed their style of play. Tweed has simply adjusted the clarity of instruction to help turn Angel City’s players into the best versions of themselves.

Tweed’s candidacy for Coach of the Year may be dependent on the Los Angeles club qualifying for their first playoff appearance, but her work is at least deserving of a permanent job and a shot at steering the team in the future.

(Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports)

Rookie of the Year: Messiah Bright, Orlando Pride

Shortlist: Paige Metayer, Alyssa Thompson, Jenna Nighswonger

When Messiah Bright fell to the second round of the 2023 NWSL Draft, it seemed fated that the forward out of TCU would make a number of teams regret letting her pass them by. Bright has been a spark plug for a rising Orlando Pride team, collaborating well with players like Adriana and Marta and developing a talent for putting the ball in the back of the net.

With six goals so far during the regular season, she’s showcasing a tenacity that will only grow with the more NWSL minutes she plays. Whether she can get Orlando above the playoff line remains to be seen, but Bright has the skills to excel in the league for years to come.

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

The U.S. women’s national team recently announced its friendly schedule for the October international window, with two games against World Cup quarterfinalists Colombia in Utah and California.

With the understanding that the team’s September games against South Africa are intended to celebrate the World Cup squad (and give Megan Rapinoe the farewell she deserves), October should bring larger roster implications. The window will give the U.S. a chance to shake up the player pool as they look to rebound from a disappointing 2023.

It’s unclear whether the team will be under new permanent management by October after the resignation of head coach Vlatko Andonovski, but leadership will be eager to reset a roster that got exposed at the World Cup. The good news for the USWNT is that there are many players excelling in the NWSL who would be great candidates for fresh looks in camp ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Here are five players I’d like to see compete for a spot on a new-look USWNT.

Sam Coffey, M, Portland Thorns

Coffey is perhaps the most obvious choice on this list as a player with some USWNT experience already. Coffey is a defensive midfielder who plays more in the style of Andi Sullivan than Julie Ertz, known for her ability to distribute and win the ball at the NWSL level. The 24-year-old is already an NWSL champion and hasn’t slowed down this year. She’s recorded a league-leading seven assists in the regular season as Portland has surged to first place despite a number of World Cup absences.

Coffey’s ability to break lines as a passer from a deep-lying midfield position is not something the U.S. prioritized under Andonovski in 2023. But ball distribution will likely be a point of focus after the World Cup as the team rethinks its shape and structure, and Coffey should be one of the first players called back into the team.

Katie Lund, GK, Racing Louisville

While Alyssa Naeher is already a USWNT legend, the program is looking for a clear successor to the 35-year-old goalkeeper. Casey Murphy has the most U.S. experience of the current group, and Aubrey Kingsbury has been excellent at the league level. But if the whole player pool is getting a rethink, Racing Louisville’s Katie Lund has proven she can handle the necessary shot-stopping to earn a call-up to camp.

Lund is leading the NWSL in saves for the second straight year, and she also leads the league in American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric based on her elite ability to stop shots. The U.S. has increasingly prioritized goalkeepers who are comfortable with the ball at their feet, which is something even Naeher developed over time. But if the team believes that element can be coached, Lund has every other tool necessary to compete at an international level.

Jaedyn Shaw, F/M, San Diego Wave

Jaedyn Shaw had a legitimate argument for inclusion on the USWNT’s 2023 World Cup roster in the absence of Mallory Swanson due to a knee injury. Shaw has all the capabilities of a classic U.S. winger, exploiting space on the dribble to make defenders miss and providing scoring opportunities for herself and her teammates.

But what makes Shaw an even more exciting USWNT prospect is her composure on the ball, which far exceeds what one might expect from an 18-year-old. She can play in a creative midfield role as well as on the wings, picking out tricky passes with the same ease as when she’s progressing the ball on the dribble. In fact, Shaw could be the heir to Rose Lavelle’s place on the field as much as she can contribute in wide areas now. She’s a must-have as the U.S. reshapes its roster.

Morgan Weaver has earned two caps with the senior USWNT in her career. (Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports)

Morgan Weaver, F, Portland Thorns

Weaver has been a steady force for Portland in 2023, finding ways to impact games from wide areas and contributing from the inside when needed. Weaver brings a high-motor intensity to her work both with and without the ball, knowing when to provide width and get to the endline, and when to pull defenders centrally to create space for her teammates. She has five goals and four assists so far this season, and could carry even more responsibility if the knee injury Sophia Smith sustained over the weekend ends up sidelining her for an extended period of time.

Weaver also has — for lack of a more defined term — the intangibles the USWNT has long prioritized. Whether starting or playing off the bench, she brings a desire to win that puts opponents on their heels. She can fill a variety of roles for a team that sometimes struggles to get the right combination on the field, and she’d bring a personality that seems to fit right in with the USWNT’s most intense competitors.

Sam Staab, D, Washington Spirit

If there’s one thing we learned from the 2023 World Cup, it’s that center-back depth can disappear in an instant. Andonovski made the call before the tournament began that he trusted a pairing of Ertz and Naomi Girma over other options like Alana Cook and Emily Sonnett. There are also questions of whether longtime captain Becky Sauerbrunn will re-enter the fold, whether Tierna Davidson will regain her form, and whether Ertz will step away from the sport entirely.

The U.S. desperately needs to go back to the scouting board at the center-back position, and Staab should be high on their list. She’s the Spirit’s iron woman, providing a steady durability the USWNT has missed in recent years. She can disrupt play with her positioning and send a long ball forward on a dime, and her NWSL experience should allow her to become a contributor quickly. Staab also has long throw-in capabilities, giving any team extended set-piece opportunities in the final third. The 26-year-old has done the work, and now she deserves a look.

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

June has brought another exciting month of NWSL action, with some shifting at the top of the table. While the Thorns have stayed ahead of the pack and North Carolina is on the rise, OL Reign, San Diego and Washington have remained in the mix at the top of the standings.

Familiar faces continue to perform at the highest level, and the Golden Boot race is heating up before players leave for the 2023 World Cup. A few have notably stood out in regular season play, with their team’s fortunes following suit.

Here is our pick for June’s NWSL Player of the Month.

Kerolin, F, North Carolina Courage

Kerolin and Portland’s Sophia Smith were neck-and-neck heading into the end of the month, but the way the Brazilian attacker has been able to raise her team’s standing in June gives her the ultimate edge.

Kerolin scored four regular season goals in June, including one hat trick, as the Courage went 3-1 to surge to second place in the NWSL standings. The 23-year-old’s influence also goes beyond the box score. She is fifth in the league in xG added for the month of June, and second in American Soccer Analysis’ g+ metric, based on her excellent dribbling and passing abilities.

In addition to the underlying stats, what sets Kerolin’s month apart has to do with her team. Expectations for North Carolina were uncharacteristically low heading into this season, after the team lost major playmakers like Debinha and Diana Ordoñez. But instead of falling off, North Carolina has looked like a more cohesive unit in 2023 than it did in 2022, and the results have followed.

With international transfer interest already brewing as Kerolin leaves for the World Cup, her star is only rising, and June 2023 might end up being considered her career breakthrough.

Sophia Smith leads the NWSL's Golden Boot race over halfway through the season. (Troy Wayrynen/USA TODAY Sports)

Honorable mentions

Sophia Smith, F, Portland Thorns

Smith was typically excellent in June, taking control of the Golden Boot race with a six-goal month. She capped June off with her second hat trick of the season, placing the Thorns at the top of the table as she leaves for the World Cup.

Sam Staab, D, Washington Spirit

With more than half the season over, Staab should be considered a frontrunner for NWSL Defender of the Year. She’s been very durable for a strong Spirit backline, and her distribution has been consistently excellent.

Sam Coffey, M, Portland Thorns

Just missing out on the USWNT World Cup roster, Sam Coffey is nonetheless playing some of the best soccer of her career. She leads the league with six assists and has been a versatile member of Portland’s high-flying midfield.

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

The U.S. women’s national team is in a unique position going into this year’s World Cup roster release. With the NWSL still in the swing of the regular season, USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski has the benefit of watching league games every week — but few chances for head-to-head comparisons before the team convenes for camp in June.

A number of U.S. mainstays, including Rose Lavelle, are still dealing with lingering injuries, while others, such as Catarina Macario, have removed themselves from World Cup consideration entirely. Still others are struggling to find World Cup-level form.

Meanwhile, several players without any international experience are stepping up in league play and making their cases for the USWNT roster. Andonovski doesn’t get to guide his team through any more international friendlies before committing to the group that will chase the USWNT’s fifth World Cup star, and these stars with little U.S. experience are making his decisions that much more difficult.

Aubrey Kingsbury, GK, Washington Spirit

Aubrey Kingsbury is the only player on this list with a cap for the U.S., earned against Uzbekistan in April 2022. And with Alyssa Naeher, Adrianna Franch and Casey Murphy all having up-and-down seasons, a clear argument could be made that the American goalkeeper with recent USWNT experience having the steadiest 2023 so far is actually the Washington Spirit No. 1. Washington is tied with Gotham FC for fewest goals conceded this season with eight, with Kingsbury a steady presence behind a new Spirit defensive line.

When Franch had a surge in form for Kansas City late in 2022, Kingsbury became the first goalkeeper out of the player pool after having been brought in consistently for USWNT camps in recent years. One has to wonder if the combination of familiarity with the U.S. system and commanding league form could be enough to give her the edge on the third goalkeeper spot on the plane to New Zealand.

Jaedyn Shaw, F, San Diego Wave

If there’s been one major theme of the NWSL season thus far, it’s been the youth movement. And more than one teenager likely is ready for the international stage. Jaedyn Shaw’s role within the San Diego attack has only grown as she develops into her first full season as a professional. The 18-year-old’s versatility has been on display, with crafty movement front of goal and an ability on the ball that can find seams behind an opponent’s backline.

“Jaedyn’s vision and ability to pick a pass that breaks a back line is some of the best I’ve seen in the game,” Wave head coach Casey Stoney said after last Friday’s match, in which Shaw place a perfectly weighted ball in for an assist. Shaw can play both as a forward or as a deeper-sitting playmaker, and her current form indicates she should be a legitimate consideration for the spot left open by Catarina Macario’s injury.

Savannah DeMelo, M, Racing Louisville

If there was a “pure form” index for players across all NWSL competitions, Savannah DeMelo would surely be at the very top of the list. The 25-year-old has eight goal contributions in all comps since mid-April with five goals and three assists, the most in the NWSL in that time span. An audacious playmaker, DeMelo is willing to open defenses up by shots from distance as well as by finding the runs of her teammates in behind opponents’ backlines.

She also has experience with both a single and a double pivot defensive midfield structure behind her, something the U.S. has experimented with throughout 2022 and the early months of 2023. She’s not afraid of risky passes forward, and she provides a dynamism that the U.S. might need with Rose Lavelle still returning from injury. The only mark against the midfielder’s rise in league domination is that her current run of form comes in a section of Louisville’s schedule that includes two games apiece against the struggling Kansas City Current and Chicago Red Stars.

Sam Staab, D, Washington Spirit

While it hasn’t been an incredible season of defense to this point in the NWSL, Sam Staab has stood apart from the field. Staab has shown an impressive amount of durability and mental focus in 2023, having not missed a single start since the beginning of her NWSL career. She also had to be the foundation of a new-look center-back pairing after the departure of Emily Sonnett, but even with the added pressure, she is holding down one of the NWSL’s most efficient defenses.

What also makes Staab an exciting USWNT prospect is what she provides to a team in distribution. The 26-year-old has impressive long ball vision, hitting the kind of diagonal passes that the U.S. prefers when trying to progress the ball forward. She also has the ability to take long throw-ins when the Spirit are in the attacking third, giving an extra edge in set-piece configuration for her team. With a number of center-backs in the USWNT rotation struggling to find their form and Becky Sauerbrunn still returning to the pitch, Staab deserves a long look.

Olivia Moultrie, M, Portland Thorns

Olivia Moultrie is the second teenager on this list, but she plays in Portland’s midfield like the seasoned pro she actually is. The 17-year-old has two goals and two assists in the 2023 NWSL season thus far, and she has looked increasingly like the kind of player the USWNT could use on the ball in the midfield. She — like DeMelo — plays in the attacking midfield, and she doesn’t give the ball away easily, connecting over 81% of her passes this season despite a willingness to try to thread balls forward to connect with the Thorns’ attack.

There’s also an argument to be made for continuing to build for the future, with Moultrie a likely successor to the USWNT’s current crop of creative midfielders. She’s got a good attacking rapport with striker Sophia Smith, and her numbers year over year have improved with the more time she’s gotten in a professional midfield system. She can move the ball calmly under pressure, something that the U.S. could use not only in future years but also right now, with the World Cup on the horizon.

The Washington Spirit salvaged a point Wednesday thanks to a late goal from Sam Staab that earned the Spirit a 1-1 draw with the Chicago Red Stars.

The matchup was the first between the two teams since their November showdown in the NWSL championship game. The Spirit won that last meeting to claim their first NWSL title.

Chicago got on the board first Wednesday, with Ella Stevens finding the back of the net 10 minutes in.

“The first 10 minutes [are] too timid, too reactive,” Spirit coach Kris Ward said. “I hate the fact that a goal goes in and people are holding their hands up and looking around as if they’re confused as to why a cross happened.”

Both sides had chances during the game, with each team getting five shots on goal. Washington outshot Chicago overall, 18-13.

In the 86th minute, Staab headed in the equalizer after an Ashley Hatch free kick.

“Somehow I miss open headers and I score headers against three people,” Staab said. “I don’t know why I make it so hard on myself.”

Washington now sits at eighth in the NWSL standings with seven points while Chicago sits in fifth with eight points.

“We didn’t lose,” Staab said. “So that’s a good thing.”

The National Women’s Soccer League’s Independent Review Panel has once again overturned a red card, this time for Sam Staab of the Washington Spirit.

Early on in Sunday’s game between the Spirit and Gotham FC, Staab was issued a red card for a foul just outside of the box.

Washington appealed the red card successfully upon review, which determined that Staab “had not denied an obvious goal-scoring opportunity.” Staab is now eligible to play this weekend after all disciplinary action was rescinded.

It’s a tough streak for the league’s referees, who have been called out by many for their inconsistencies. A string of retractions by the league’s Independent Review Panel seems to be an implicit acknowledgement from the league that the referees are getting it wrong.

Sam Staab plays as a defender for the Washington Spirit of the NWSL and the Western Sydney Wanderers in Australia’s W-League. 

[Editor’s note: this interview took place the day before the Washington Spirit played the Chicago Red Stars to a 1-1 draw.]

Your team is heading into its third game of the Fall Series tomorrow. I wanted to first talk about the format of these games, since this is obviously very different from the Challenge Cup. How do you feel about these more spaced-out games? 

It hasn’t been too bad. I mean, it makes it feel like a bit of a normal season having a few home games and a few away games. They split us up into regions, so we’re only playing Chicago and New Jersey, which are great teams. That’s good because it will be a challenge every single game. But other than that, it’s kind of nice just because it feels like for a month and a half we get to have a bit of a normal season.

I chatted with some other players and they were saying they didn’t realize how emotionally and physically drained they were until they came home from the Challenge Cup bubble. Was that similar for you?

Yes. Definitely leaving the Challenge Cup, I didn’t really realize it. And then when I was at home for a couple of days, I was like, Oh my gosh, this is so nice. Obviously we’re still in a pandemic, but being stuck in a hotel and an unfamiliar place and just everything that we had to go through and be aware of was emotionally and physically draining. But at the same time, I just had to be grateful and reflect on it and be like, okay, we actually got to play, and obviously we were the first league to be able to do so. And I was really grateful at the time to be able to actually play.

What is the team’s mindset given that there’s no trophy or title to play for during the Fall Series?

I think we have taken a bit of a different approach to the Fall Series. We have a lot of players injured, a lot of very influential and impactful players injured on our team right now. And we’re already kind of labeled as like the young and talented team. So I think what we’re doing is giving a lot of younger players, including myself, a ton of experience, not only just playing games, but also being in leadership roles. A bunch of us that aren’t necessarily older or veteran players have had to step into new positions and just kind of take over a bigger role on the team because we have so many big personalities and important people out. Hopefully, next year we’re in a better spot and everyone is a little bit further ahead.

Obviously a huge storyline for your team before the start of the Series was Rose Lavelle being traded and then heading abroad. Did that have any affect on your team’s chemistry?

I wouldn’t say that it had like a major effect on our team chemistry or anything. Obviously, Rose is an unbelievable player, but she had mentioned to us before everything started that this is what she was going to do. So I think we had a bit of a heads up. And everyone was really excited for her new opportunity and we just kind of had to take it for what it is. People have really stepped up into roles that she had in order to fill them. So I don’t think it necessarily had an extreme impact on our team chemistry just because our team is so close anyway, but obviously she’s an amazing player. You can’t really fill that role with anyone else besides her. But people have stepped, and I’ve had to step up, and I think we’ve done a really great job.

A lot of other players across the league have gone abroad in the past month or so. What are your general thoughts on that?

The future of the NWSL, in terms of what the league was going to do at the end of this year, was kind of up in the air and no one really knew what was happen. Everyone is in that same boat. No one knows what’s going on from one day to the next. So I think if people want to play, they’re going to go abroad because they think they can get games in and have a more normal season. It was a good move for some people because the Challenge Cup didn’t necessarily present too many opportunities for people to get playing time and show their skills. So yeah, I don’t know. We didn’t do it [loan out players] as a club just because we wanted to build on what we started and give people opportunities to play but, for the people who thought the opportunity was there for them, I think it’s a good move.

I wanted to end on asking you about any safety concerns you or your team has had given traveling for games while we are still in a pandemic. And how has the team and the league handled these concerns?

I don’t know if our team has really had too many concerns about it. I think in the kind of contract of it all, we kind of just have to make our own sort of bubble. And I think people knew that we needed to be safe with everything. So I don’t necessarily think there were too many issues with playing and traveling just because we know that like the NWSL and our club would take precautions. And ultimately were in charge of what we do with ourselves. So. It’s about putting yourself in a bad or sticky situation. You should be okay. And you don’t have to think more than just yourself because you’re impacting your entire team. So I think if there was any sort of concern, our captains and our club handled it, but I don’t know if there was anything. We get tested twice a week. You need two negative tests before you play any game.