It’s that time of year. With the close of the regular season, it’s time to start thinking about the end of the year awards. Here’s my take.
- Sam Kerr
- McCall Zerboni
- Sam Mewis
- Julie Ertz
This is a close race, and I certainly wouldn’t argue with anyone who swapped first and second. Marta was incredible this year—the pivot of Orlando’s transition, the supplier of key passes, provider of holdup play, scorer of goals, and heart and soul of the team. Plus, I’m inherently skeptical of the goals-are-everything attitude which tends to dominate awards voting, and would really like to make the case for Marta.
But Kerr …
I think we’ll be talking for years about the season that Sam Kerr had in 2017. She was a force of nature and almost single-handedly kept Sky Blue afloat. That she played a role in that many goals, on a team so fundamentally limited, was nothing short of miraculous.
The top two are pretty clear in my mind, but there’s a lot more room for disagreement after that. I’m picking Zerboni third, though could just as easily go with her midfield partner Sam Mewis. Julie Ertz had a wonderful season, as the fulcrum of the Chicago defense, and as an important attacking force as well. The same goes for Jess Fishlock in Seattle. Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan missed time but were world-class when they played. Christen Press was the best in the league for the opening third of the season but then settled back to merely ‘good’ in the back half.
Ultimately, I chose Zerboni, Mewis, and Ertz to round out my top five. All three have been integral to their teams, but I picked Zerboni third because I think she is the absolute heart of the system North Carolina has built and sustained. Her work rate is unparalleled, and her ability to disrupt play unquestionable. Without a player like her, shielding the backline and stitching the attack together, the whole system would break down. It has been an incredible year for Zerboni, and she deserves immense credit for finding this next level of performance.
Rookie of the Year
- Ashley Hatch
- Meggie Dougherty Howard
- Mallory Pugh
In many ways, Rookie of the Year is the toughest category to define. In an MVP race, the quality is so high across the board that simply showing up is critical. You aren’t providing any value if you’re off the pitch. But for a rookie race, where the quality is generally lower, it’s less obvious. If Player A contributes 2000 minutes of league-average performance, there is a lot of real value there. But how to compare 2000 minutes of ‘average’ against Player B, who only managed 1000 minutes but was very good? From a team’s perspective, Player A is probably more valuable, especially given the low replacement level of the league right now. But from the perspective of deciding on a ‘rookie of the year’ award, it’s less obvious.
All of which is to say: I don’t have a clear method here, and in a very close race ultimately just went with my gut. And my gut tells me that Hatch was the best of the year. She scored goals, harassed the opposition, and almost seamlessly integrated into the North Carolina system. She played for a stacked team and therefore was only able to get about 1200 minutes, but I think she provided the best combination of bulk and peak performance.
To balance things out, my #2 is Dougherty Howard, who was an integral part of Washington’s team, stepping in to fill the holding role when Tori Huster was injured, and then doing very well as more of a #8 once Huster returned. She struggled at times, but it’s incredibly impressive to contribute that much and to play that many minutes, in a rookie year.
For my #3, I seriously considered Christina Gibbons (whose season shares a lot of similar characteristics with Dougherty Howard’s), Kailen Sheridan, and even Rose Lavelle. But ultimately I kept coming back to Pugh, who often struggled (understandably) to express herself for the Spirit. But she did enough to ultimately convince me.
Goalkeeper of the Year
- Adrianna Franch
- Katelyn Rowland
- Nicole Barnhart
Franch wins this one in a walk. She had some early season struggles with her distribution but improved significantly on that front. And in terms of shot stopping and control over the box, she was easily the best. Conceding just 20 goals in 24 games is impressive enough, and Franch wasn’t simply the beneficiary of a strong team defense. Her shots-on-goal per game ratio of 4.3 was on the low side, but not an extreme outlier (league average was 5.0). Which means her save/goal ratio was an extreme outlier. At 4.1, she was a full half point ahead of the closest competition, miles above the league average of 2.5.
Second place was also an easy call, with Rowland doing very well in every capacity. For third, I was tempted by a few names. Plenty of keepers had strong runs during the year: Kopmeyer and Labbe early, Sheridan in midseason, Harris toward the end. But ultimately I came back to the steadiness of Barnhart.
Defender of the Year
- Abby Dahlkemper
- Emily Sonnett
- Casey Short
I have no strong opinions on this one, and could easily have reversed the order, or swapped out these three for an entirely different set and still been pretty satisfied. To my eyes, Dahlkemper was the steadiest of the bunch, while Sonnett did a fantastic job reminding us why we were so hyped about her in the first place. Short, meanwhile, performed admirably at left back, with some decent play covering at center back when needed. Any of the three would be worthy winners. And I could equally make a case for players like Ali Krieger, Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Erceg, Emily Menges, Kelley O’Hara, Taylor Smith, and Steph Catley.
Coach of the Year
- Paul Riley
- Tom Sermanni
- Vlatko Andonovski
The only real question here is which of Riley or Sermanni deserves first place. To me, it’s Riley. That North Carolina team has been incredibly impressive, relentless, and dominating all season. And while they’ve got plenty of great players, this is a true gestalt system, with many players doing far better than I would have guessed. They’ve integrated new faces without any trouble, swapped systems, handled injuries to key players without much difficulty, and stayed at the top of the league all season. There are more tactically savvy coaches, but none who got anything close to this sort of total buy-in from their team.
That said, Sermanni deserves immense credit for what he’s done in Orlando, particularly given the clear limitations of the roster. His big moves (including relying heavily on Kennedy and Weatherholt to anchor the midfield – which, raise your hand if you saw that coming) have worked splendidly, and the team looks more unified and more dangerous every week.
In third place, I went for Andonovski, not because his team looked particularly great this year. But unlike other teams facing serious difficulties, FCKC never folded. Even when the results weren’t coming, you could see them working hard, and see how they were going to get better. So it was no real surprise when things turned back around and they started moving back up the table.
Team of the Season
Sam Kerr – Alex Morgan – Christen Press
Marta – Sam Mewis – McCall Zerboni
Casey Short – Abby Dahlkemper – Emily Sonnett – Kelley O’Hara
Most of these should be obvious from the comments above. Toughest call was leaving out Ertz, but I already have Zerboni in my XI to fill that role, so I chose to go with Press as a third striker instead.
Megan Rapinoe – Lynn Williams – Shea Groom
Lindsey Horan – Jess Fishlock – Julie Ertz
Allysha Chapman – Ali Krieger – Becky Sauerbrunn – Taylor Smith
Williams didn’t score as many goals this year as in 2016, but I think she might have been a better all-around player. Groom may raise some eyebrows, but she was excellent for KC, supplying plenty of goals and assists directly, but contributing even more to the set-up. I went back and forth several times on Horan, who frustrated me at times this year. But on the whole, I think she did enough to justify a spot. Allysha Chapman had a marvelous year and was a big part of Boston’s defensive turnaround.
Honorable mentions (i.e. – the toughest exclusions): Amandine Henry (more minutes and she’d have made it), Naho Kawasumi (a magician, but drifted out of games a little too often), Vanessa DiBernardo (excelled in the #10 but was less effective in other roles, and missed time), Abby Erceg (could absolutely make a case for her as the best CB), Steph Catley (slow start but excellent second half), Sofia Huerta (really coming into her own), Angela Salem (the heart of the Breakers’ setup), and Christine Sinclair.