Route Two Soccer: My 2018 NWSL awards ballot

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It’s time for some end of the year votes. Here’s my take on who should win the big awards.

MVP

  1. Crystal Dunn
  2. Lindsey Horan
  3. McCall Zerboni
  4. Megan Rapinoe
  5. Sam Kerr

It’s the most wide-open field the league has ever seen this year. To my eyes, there are a half dozen serious candidates, with plenty of others where you could make a plausible case. That’s a reflection of the depth in the league, as well as the fact that a lot of potential candidates ended up missing time. I predict that Kerr will win—the Golden Boot winner has never failed to win the MVP, after all—and won’t really be upset if it happens. Despite missing a quarter of the season, she really is just that good.

Still, I have her toward the bottom of my shortlist, behind some players that I think provided a bit more all-around value. Dunn faded a bit in the back half of the season, dropping from ‘impossibly great’ to ‘very good,’ but I’m going to stick with her as my MVP. Compare this year’s NC to last year, and you can see the difference that Dunn makes. Without her, they were a powerful, dominant team—one of the best in the league. With her, they were superhuman, producing the best season that any team has ever managed in the NWSL, arguably the best single season from a women’s professional soccer team…like, ever.

Meanwhile, Lindsey Horan excels at literally everything, making her the linchpin of Portland’s attack and defense. McCall Zerboni does the dirty work that helps make North Carolina so unplayable, while also contributing plenty to the attack. Rapinoe might have been my #1 pick if she’d been able to play the whole season. When she’s at full strength, she’s the most impactful player in the league. It’s truly astonishing how much she’s been able to expand her game. So that’s five excellent choices, and it would be wonderful to see any of them win.


Rookie of the Year

  1. Linda Motlhalo
  2. Savannah McCaskill
  3. Imani Dorsey

This was not a strong year for rookies, to put it mildly. That’s partly a function of league contraction, which left far fewer opportunities than usual. It’s also a function of some big name rookies simply having down years. Andi Sullivan, for example, was a consensus #1 pick, one of the biggest talents to emerge from college in recent years. And she may yet come good, maybe as soon as next year. But at the moment, the performances haven’t been there.

By comparison, Linda Motlhalo was no one’s tip for the award back in March, but ended up lapping the field by a huge margin. She’s nowhere close to a star, and had plenty of bad moments, especially at the start of the season. But she played almost 2000 minutes, playing a critical role in binding together the surprisingly solid Houston midfield all year. And there’s a lot of value in simply showing up and being average. When you compare that to the rest of the rookie class, it becomes even more clear.

I have McCaskill second, despite more than a few anonymous performances over the season. It wasn’t the year we were all hoping for, but she provided some real drive in the Sky Blue attack that often sputtered without her. The same goes for Dorsey, whose arrival midway through the season gave the New Jersey side pace and precision they desperately needed. You could also put Veronica Latsko in the mix, who made a similar sort of impact in limited minutes for the Dash.


Goalkeeper of the Year

  1. Lydia Williams
  2. Adrianna Franch
  3. ????

The only real question here is Williams vs. Franch. I have no idea who belongs in third place, but I know they’re a country mile behind these top two. I went with Williams, who I think played a huge role in organizing that wonderful Seattle defense, but would have no problem with someone choosing Franch. Even with both missing significant time, I think the top two slots are locked down pretty easily here.

If you forced me to pick a #3, I guess I’d go with Alyssa Naeher, whose worrying loss of form compared to her peak of a couple years ago continued in 2018. But even with the occasional mishap, she’s still a solid keeper who turned in a decent year. I did consider Aubrey Bledsoe, but I just see too many mistakes there. She had a good season, and deserves credit for breaking the saves record. But that’s mostly a function of her defense letting in a ton of shots.


Defender of the Year

  1. Abby Erceg
  2. Jaelene Hinkle
  3. Becky Sauerbrunn

It’s always hard to know what to do with individual North Carolina players. Given how stacked the whole team is, it’s going to be easier for every specific player to shine. So I’m open to persuasion here. But Erceg was absolutely immense this year, doing plenty to maximize the value of their system: ranging into space to close down plays before they became dangerous, holding off one-on-one challenges, and winning tons of aerial challenges. Just a rock solid year from top to bottom.

Hinkle, meanwhile, was less impressive defensively—though she had a pretty good year there, too—but was outrageously good in the attack. She had the best year from a fullback by leaps and bounds, contributing more key passes than the best creative midfielders. This is not an exaggeration. She literally had more key passes than the best attacking players in the league. Look it up.

I seriously considering going with Megan Oyster as my third pick. She had a wonderful year for Seattle, but I ultimately had to trust my gut, which tells me that Sauerbrunn remains the most intelligent center back in the world. She’s not as dominant in close-quarters defending as she once was, but her anticipation of play is out of this world. And that’s the difference maker for me.

Once again, Emily Menges had a fantastic season, but just missed too much time. If she’d been able to play in 4-5 more games, I’d have her on this list.


Coach of the Year

  1. Paul Riley
  2. Vera Pauw
  3. Vlatko Andonovski

We’re blessed with tons of great choices here. In the end, though, you just can’t argue with what Paul Riley has done with the Courage. It’s the most cohesive and complete team ever assembled in US professional soccer, with every position contributing to the whole. Sure, they’ve got tons of great players. But he deserves a ton of credit for getting the most out of that roster, and helping players like Zerboni, Hinkle, and Lynn Williams develop from solid contributors into world-class talents.

Then there’s Pauw, who took a team that everyone (myself included) had pegged for last place, and kept them in the playoff hunt until the final week of the season. If I sometimes had a hard time understanding why it was working, that might only makes it feel more impressive. I picked Riley at #1, in part because of the culture he’s built over the years. But given the situation in Houston at the start of the season, I’m not sure anyone had a more impressive spring and summer than Pauw.

Finally, Vlatko Andonovski. Seattle looked so good right from the start of the season—and maintained that quality over the whole year—that it became easy to take them for granted. But it’s truly remarkable how seamlessly he was able to step in, right the ship, and produce an absurdly good defensive unit despite an endless parade of injuries and absences.


Team of the Season

Megan Rapinoe – Sam Ker – Rachel Daly

Lindsey Horan – McCall Zerboni – Crystal Dunn

Jaelene Hinkle – Abby Erceg – Becky Sauerbrunn – Theresa Nielsen

Lydia Williams

The toughest call here was my third forward. I went with Rachel Daly, who was a massive difference maker for a Houston team that sometimes struggled to create chances and needed her to be great. But any of the forwards on my Second XI could easily have fit in here.


Second XI

Yuki Nagasoto – Lynn Williams – Tobin Heath

Christine Sinclair – Allie Long – Sophia Huerta

Steph Catley – Megan Oyster – Emily Menges – Arin Gilliland

Adrianna Franch

It was a weak year for fullbacks. Catley was a clear step below her performances in some previous years, while Gilliland blew very hot and cold. But both did enough for me to take them. I almost went with Caprice Dydasco, who had a very nice season in the midst of the mess that was the Spirit season. In the midfield, I thought long and hard about Dani Colaprico, who had another great Colaprico season, and the other NC midfielders, who all could easily have made the list. But ultimately I thought that Long’s contributions as the solid holding player in that Seattle midfield were more significant. I also originally had Amber Brooks as my final center back, but decided that Menges was so good in her limited time that it was enough to overcome a great year from Brooks by a hair.


Finally, I want to note a few players who were outstanding in limited minutes, but simply didn’t play enough to merit consideration on these lists. First is Mallory Pugh, who was the best player in the league for the first 5-6 weeks, but was clearly not at the same level when she returned.

Second, Vanessa DiBernardo, whose return was instrumental in turning Chicago from an underperforming group into a devastatingly effective team.

Third, Sam Mewis, who never seemed to get out of second gear, but still contributed a ton of value in limited time.

Finally, Julie Ertz, whose ability to be one of the best players in the league at multiple positions gave her team some critical flexibility when it came to make trades and re-arranging their options.

Image courtesy of Corri Goates