Ashley Hatch of the Washington Spirit (JEREMY REPER/ISI PHOTOS)

With the NWSL season off to a sizzling (if not hectic start), we wanted to give a nod to ten of the league’s most underrated players — those who don’t always get the headlines, but who still deserve the credit.

In no particular order… 

Jennifer Cudjoe, NJ/NY Gotham FC

Cudjoe proved herself a standout defensive player for Sky Blue FC (now NJ/NY Gotham FC) during the 2020 Challenge Cup, appearing in six matches, four in which she was a starter, and logging 368 minutes of playing time. 

Throughout the Challenge Cup, she maintained an 80% success rate in tackles and a 66.7% success rate in aerial duels. When paired with her impressive passing accuracy, speed, and ability on the ball, the 27-year-old will look to continue to be a menacing presence on the Gotham FC backline.

Tziarra King, OL Reign

After concluding her college campaign with NC State, Tziarra King was selected eighth overall by the Utah Royals (who have since relocated to Kansas City) in the 2020 NWSL Draft. During the Challenge Cup, she made her professional debut against the Houston Dash, scoring a mere 20 minutes after entering the game as a substitute. Her performance in that Challenge Cup earned her a starting spot in each match of the subsequent Fall Series, during which she scored her second professional goal.

In January of 2021, she was traded to the OL Reign — and if her short-lived career with the Royals was any indication of what kind of player she will be for the Reign, the league should be on notice.

Shea Groom, Houston Dash

Also emerging as a force during the 2020 Challenge Cup was Dash midfielder Shea Groom. Appearing in seven matches throughout the tournament, Groom notched three goals and an assist, leading the Dash to their first-ever title.

During the Fall Series, Groom added her name to the scoresheet in three of four matches played and notched two assists in the sole match she did not score in. Furthermore, the young star has signed a three-year contract extension with the Dash, keeping her in Houston for the foreseeable future. If Groom continues on her current trajectory, it is almost certain she will become one of the Dash’s most valuable players, even if she has yet to receive her full due.

Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos
Denise O’Sullivan, North Carolina Courage

A quiet but valuable presence in the Courage attacking third, Denise O’Sullivan is as reliable as they come. In 2,158 minutes of playing time during the 2019 regular season, O’Sullivan maintained an 84.3% passing success rate, completing 1,039 of 1,233 attempted passes and averaging 51.4 passes per 90 minutes. In 2020, the Irish international spent time on loan in the FA Women’s Super League, playing a total of 761 minutes in 11 matches for Brighton & Hove Albion.

Of O’Sullivan’s ability in the midfield, Courage head coach Paul Riley called her “the engine room, the architect, the inspiration and the leader of a very good midfield unit” — frankly, we couldn’t agree more. 

Kealia Watt, Chicago Red Stars

After being traded from the Houston Dash to the Chicago Red Stars last year, Kealia Watt debuted with her new team during the 2020 Challenge Cup, but really found her footing with the Red Stars during the Fall Series, creating thirteen scoring chances, netting two goals, and assisting on two more.

Her Fall Series performance caught the attention of Vlatko Andonovski, earning the forward a call up to an 11-day USWNT training camp that took place in October. As the 2021 season approaches, Watt will look to continue to assert her value in the Red Stars’ lineup.

Simone Charley, Portland Thorns

A member of the outstanding Portland Thorns offense, Simone Charley has flown under the radar since her start in the NWSL. The forward notched a goal apiece in the Challenge Cup and Fall Series, combining for 574 minutes of play during the shortened 2020 NWSL season.

Her value has not gone unnoticed by Thorns head coach Mark Parsons, however, who stated that Charley provides a “unique dimension in the final third” as well as “attacking qualities that provide a constant threat to the opposition.”

Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos
Ashley Hatch, Washington Spirit

Ashley Hatch is arguably one of the Spirit’s most talented offensive players, as she scored one goal and assisted on another during the shortened 2020 season, and previously led the Spirit in scoring during the 2018 and 2019 seasons, earning the Golden Boot award in 2018, her first season with the team.

The BYU alum boasted an impressive 100% success rate in tackles during the 2020 Fall Series and a 75% passing success rate, earning a nod from the USWNT as she was subsequently called into October’s training camp.

Addisyn Merrick, Racing Louisville FC

Addisyn Merrick is a noteworthy player who rarely gets the credit she deserves. The 28th-overall pick in the 2020 NWSL Draft, Merrick was the first to be selected in Racing Louisville’s expansion draft, plucking the up-and-coming star from the North Carolina Courage and landing her in Kentucky.

Though she only appeared in eight matches for the Courage, she posted a 62.5% tackle success rate during last year’s Challenge Cup and a 69.2% tackle success rate in the Fall Series. Her selection in the expansion draft dealt a significant blow to the Courage’s backline, and her presence on defense will be crucial for Louisville’s success in their inaugural season.

Rocky Rodriguez, Portland Thorns

A staple player in Portland’s midfield, Rocky Rodriguez proved her undervalued ability during the 2020 Challenge Cup. In only six games played during the tournament, Rodriguez made ten interceptions, seven clearances, and seven key passes to lift the Thorns to the semifinals of the tournament.

Likewise sensational on the global stage, the Costa Rican international has recorded 73 caps and scored 42 goals for her country. Arguably, she is largely responsible for the lethality of the Thorns’ offense, especially when paired with players like Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair.

Kristen Edmonds, Kansas City NWSL

Called the “ultimate utility player” in an article posted by the Kansas City Star, Kristen Edmonds was traded from the Orlando Pride to Kansas City in January. In 866 minutes played for her former team, Edmonds posted a 60.3% success rate in duels, 19 clearances, and 9 interceptions.

A versatile asset, Edmonds appeared on defense, in the midfield, and on offense for the Pride and will likely continue a similar pattern with her new team. Kansas City coach Huw Williams has already asserted that the team will be filling the defender in at a lot of spots and that the depth and quality of play that Edmonds provided were exactly what the team was looking for. Headlines from earlier in the tournament may have focused on her scuffle with Portland’s Morgan Weaver, but don’t get distracted — Edmonds is an elite and versatile player.