NWSL players and fans are still waiting on the 2023 schedule
The NWSL season begins March 25.
The United States women’s national team had a year to remember, claiming the Concacaf W Championship in July to qualify for a chance to win a fifth title at the 2023 World Cup. They also had moments fans would probably soon like to forget, such as tough results against world powers this fall and their first three-game losing streak since 1993.
Through all the highs and lows, a handful of players stood out above the rest. The Just Women’s Sports team — Claire Watkins, Jessa Braun and Eden Laase — got together to put a bow on the 2022 campaign with picks for individual awards and superlatives.
For reference, our voters could choose from all capped players in 2022, while a few categories had their own requirements for consideration (as outlined in those sections below).
Watkins: Sophia Smith
This is a hard choice based on how much the U.S. rotated this year, but I have to go with NWSL MVP Sophia Smith. She scored the most goals for the USWNT, played both centrally and on the wings, supported defensively and consistently looked like a bright spot, even when the team around her was struggling. 2022 was the Year of Sophia Smith.
Braun: Naomi Girma
Center-back Naomi Girma was a USWNT rookie in 2022, but her lack of experience wouldn’t have been noticeable to someone not familiar with the national team. Playing with the composure of a veteran, she was a standout in the backline against some of the USWNT’s toughest opponents, including England and Germany to close out the season. At just 22, Girma is already a world-class player in distribution, one-on-one defense, reading the game, directing her teammates and everything in between.
Laase: Sophia Smith
Sophia Smith is my pick, too. While she’s been making appearances with the senior team since 2020, this year she truly cemented herself as the future of U.S. women’s soccer. She scored 11 goals in 17 appearances, including one in a much-needed win over Germany on Nov. 13.
Eligible with fewer than five caps entering 2022: Sam Coffey, Alana Cook, Naomi Girma, Jaelin Howell, Aubrey Kingsbury, Taylor Kornieck, Hailie Mace, Casey Murphy, Carson Pickett, Trinity Rodman, Alyssa Thompson, Ashley Sanchez, Ashley Hatch
Watkins: Naomi Girma
I think the winner here has to be a true rookie, and I’m going with perhaps the most obvious choice. Girma didn’t get her first cap until April, and she slowly worked her way into becoming irreplaceable in the USWNT backline.
Braun: Casey Murphy
In a world where goalkeepers are too often forgotten, Casey Murphy shined on the international stage. Rotating games with two-time World Cup champion Alyssa Naeher, Murphy had no trouble maintaining the standard in her first year with the senior team. She played the most games of the three goalkeepers, totaling 810 minutes, and she had the most shutouts with six.
Laase: Naomi Girma
Girma made her debut for the national team on April 12 in a friendly against Uzbekistan and has made 10 appearances since then. Girma doesn’t play like a rookie. Her instincts are that of someone in the middle of their career, and she rarely makes mistakes. When she’s in the game, the backline looks much more relaxed, and that’s saying something for a player at the start of her career.
Eligible: Alana Cook, Abby Dahlkemper, Tierna Davidson, Crystal Dunn, Emily Fox, Naomi Girma, Sofia Huerta, Hailie Mace, Kelley O’Hara, Carson Pickett, Becky Sauerbrunn
Watkins: Becky Sauerbrunn
Girma’s my rookie, so I’m going to go with classic defensive standout Becky Sauerbrunn. Sauerbrunn arguably had an underrated 2022. The veteran was tasked with bridging a divide as her regular compatriots in the backline weren’t available due to absence and injury. Sauerbrunn’s pairing with Girma in the last game of the year — which marked only their third time together at center-back — is a good example of just how flexible the team’s captain is in her defensive role.
Braun: Sofia Huerta
Sofia Huerta was one of two defenders to play over 1,000 minutes this year, even with minutes restrictions. She also started 11 of the 16 games she played. An aggressive threat in possession, Huerta registered two assists courtesy of her lethal crosses, tying her with Alana Cook for the most by a U.S. defender. After three years away from the national team, the tenacious fullback returned last November and was a backbone for a defense dealing with injuries and lineup changes.
Laase: Naomi Girma
I have no issue picking Girma for multiple awards because of the all-around stellar year she had. So, in addition to Rookie of the Year, she’s my Defender of the Year for all the reasons I mentioned above.
Eligible with over 1,000 minutes played: Alana Cook (1,286), Sofia Huerta (1,074), Rose Lavelle (1,107), Mallory Pugh (1,030), Sophia Smith (1,192), Andi Sullivan (1,126)
Watkins: Alana Cook
I’m going to go with a player who has received some criticism in recent months and stick with the team’s most depended-on player in 2022. The fact that Alana Cook is both eligible for rookie status and also played the most minutes for the USWNT in 2022 provides some insight into her development as an international center-back. She had to hold everything down while pairing with a rotation that included Tierna Davidson, Abby Dahlkemper, Sauerbrunn and Girma.
Braun: Sophia Smith
To play the second-most minutes on the team is not common for an attacker, but Smith proved this year that there’s nothing she can’t do. She started and played 17 games, the most of anyone on the team, and she was also the only player to reach double digits in goals with 11. Known as the brace queen, Smith also scored at least two goals in four matches.
Laase: Andi Sullivan
Injuries plagued Andi Sullivan’s early years with the senior national team, including a torn ACL in 2016, a torn meniscus in 2020 and a quad injury in 2021. This year, she stayed healthy and appeared in 15 games. The USWNT is sitll figuring things out in the midfield heading into a World Cup year, but Sullivan was a steadying force throughout all the workshopping.
Watkins: Sam Coffey
It has to be Sam Coffey, in that a year ago, I’m not sure anyone had her ascension to the USWNT on their radar. Coffey played as a forward at Boston College and then as an attacking midfielder at Penn State, only joining the Thorns as a defensive midfielder at the beginning of 2022. That she took to the position so quickly and is already being hailed as the possible “One True No. 6 To Rule Them All” is a bit of a shocking development, and a welcome one.
Braun: Megan Rapinoe
In most ways, Megan Rapinoe was not a surprise at all. The legendary veteran has been instrumental in getting four World Cup stars above the USWNT badge. But this year, her return to the national team during a time of turnover wasn’t entirely predictable, especially after she played limited minutes for her NWSL club, OL Reign. When she joined the national team for the first time this year in June, she was expected to serve as an off-field leader. But Rapinoe took full advantage of the few minutes she spent on the field, recording two assists and scoring a goal in November to save the U.S. from a scoreless loss against Germany.
Laase: Crystal Dunn
For me, the biggest surprise was Crystal Dunn coming back to play just 140 days after giving birth to her son. Though the USWNT lost to England on Oct. 7, Dunn subbing in at the 63-minute mark was one of the best moments of the match. The 30-year-old not only managed to play at the highest level of soccer less than five months after giving birth, but she also reminded the USWNT how valuable she can be to the lineup.
Watkins: Mallory Pugh vs. Iceland (Feb. 23)
I think you could pick any of the first four goals that the U.S. scored against Iceland to clinch the SheBelieves Cup in February, but I’m going with the fourth. Catarina Macario sprung a counter with her defensive work rate, and she and Mal Pugh looked like the only two strikers on Planet Earth in the back-and-forth sequence that ended in a perfect final pass from Macario and strike by Pugh.
Braun: Catarina Macario vs. Iceland (Feb. 23)
Like Claire said, those goals against Iceland are top of the list. For me it’s the first one, where Macario is in a two-on-one situation at the far corner of the box and blasts the ball from there. The build-up to the goal was about as picture-perfect as Macario’s strike itself, with the fluid string of passes showing the chemistry the national team is capable of.
Laase: Mallory Pugh vs. Germany (Nov. 10)
While it wasn’t the most impressive or exciting of all the goals scored this year, I’m going with Mal Pugh’s game-winner against Germany. The U.S. desperately needed a win to end the year on a high note after an unexpected three-game slide. Pugh outran the German defense and placed the ball perfectly into the low corner, finally giving her squad something to celebrate.
Watkins: Trinity Rodman
Long away camps are never easy, but Trinity Rodman’s Concacaf W TikToks (supported by a rotating cast of teammates) will live forever.
Braun: Taylor Kornieck
The videos might not be on her own social media profiles, but Taylor Kornieck shines in the goofy entertainment she creates with San Diego Wave FC teammate Kailen Sheridan. The “High School Musical” human basketball reel on Sheridan’s Instagram can’t be forgotten.
Laase: Rose Lavelle
It was late in the year, but I have to shout out Rose Lavelle’s performance of Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” at the Player’s Ball. Iconic.
rose lavelle you are my favorite human ever pic.twitter.com/P3LBCvmCFr— maddie (@vivmccabe) November 15, 2022
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.
Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.
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