Four playoff spots will be up for grabs on Sunday’s NWSL first decision day. And how teams finish in the table could have a huge impact on 2023’s year-end awards, from Golden Boot to Coach of the Year. Could this be the first time an interim head coach has won that award when Becki Tweed turned it around for Angel City? Can Sophia Smith hang on for one more week to win the Golden Shoe?
The Athletic’s Meg Linnen and Jeff Rutter discuss the stats and intangibles of each regular-season award to find out who the candidates are, who the favorites are (get ready for the Ali Krieger hype train for Defensive Player of the Year) and how to debate — once again — how to define “Most Valuable Player.”
Linehan: We can start with the most straightforward, the Golden Boot. Sophia Smith, who missed World Cup games and a recent knee injury, still leads the way with 11 goals and five assists in 1134 minutes played – that’s a goal every 103 minutes. Smith is back on the field for the final weekend and has a chance to catch her three main rivals in Caroline (North Carolina Courage), Debinha (Case Current) and Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit).
Golden shoe competition by numbers
Numbers via NWSL Official Statistics.
Rutter: It’s no surprise that Smith is still in contention despite her quality. In the past two years, she has scored consistently in any league. What has been particularly impressive at her leading edge this year is that she has had to evolve as defenses focus on thwarting her runs into the box.
In the past, Smith has done most of her work in the zone, whether she’s collecting the ball from a teammate or stopping herself on dribbles. But teams have gotten wiser — and who can blame them, really — so she has to adapt. In the year After shooting 23% from outside the box in 2021 and 23.1% from outside the box in 2022, her rate jumps to 32% this season. It’s paying off: five of her 11 goals have come from outside the box, doubling her total of three from the past two seasons.
Linehan: I think the only question here is how many minutes Smith will get on Sunday and if she can swing an insurance goal or two. In any case, her goalscoring streak earlier this year has kept her on top over the past few weekends, and it makes you wonder what number she could have been if it hadn’t been for that. Damage.
Rutter: It’s also worth a quick reminder that Ashley Hatch may walk away with this award. The spirit failed to change because she received many opportunities. Hatch’s 9.14 expected goals out of the penalty box is the most of anyone this season (Smith ranks second with 7.15 npxG). Take away five converted penalties, and Hatch’s output leaves much to be desired. Her -5.14 xG underperformance would be the new low mark for any player over the past three seasons.
A very valuable player
Linehan: I feel like we do this every year, but it’s always good to start by discussing the concept of what makes a player “most valuable” to their team. How do we allow for that subjectivity when it comes to scoring, creating and defending goals – or, in the case of a perfect player, all three – and voting?
That said, he feels there are two front-runners for the award this year: Carolyn and Sam Coffey.
Rutter: This summer, the world learned what NWSL fans already know: Brazil’s lineup of do-it-all midfielders will endure after Marta retires. Caroline is absolutely dynamic on the ball, becoming one of the best takeaway aces in the world (3.81 per 90, 99th percentile of the world’s top 9 leagues by fbref).
Simply put, his courage would be a shadow without her. She has contributed to 27.7% of their goals (counting her assists), which is second only to Houston’s Maria Sanchez in the NWSL this year. She took 36.5% of the Courage’s take-ons and scored 34.4% of their touches in the box – leading the league, with Trinity Rodman second in both categories.
But to your point: Are we going to pick the most important player for their team or the best player in the league in 2023?
Linehan: If it’s the best of the best, the choice is Sam Coffey. She was a Rookie of the Year contender last season, but has become essential for Portland in her sophomore year. Let me quote the stats they sent me in Slack: She was on the field for Portland for 98.9% of the season, a great mark for any midfielder or forward. She’s leading the league in assists, and she’s getting it all on the court.
7 – Sam Coffey’s league-leading eight assists on goals for seven different @ThornsFC players this year, the most assists in a single regular season by any player in @NWSL history. Difference. pic.twitter.com/v5O75d061x
— OptaJack⚽️ (@OptaJack) October 7, 2023
The Thorns, arguably, remain the best team in the NWSL – we’ll find out if they end up with the Shield on Sunday. Maybe it’s because I get so much value in midfield creativity, but if the Thorns finish early, that will only strengthen Coffin’s MVP case. They are not lifting that trophy without her.
Rutter: Coffey’s opportunity creation is a big reason why Smith continues to be effective despite taking fewer shots in the box. Instead of relying solely on Morgan Weaver’s typically strong passing and Crystal Dunn’s skill to find her chances, Smith got plenty of service from midfield thanks to Coffey. You can see how many of her passing darts go to center and left third of the field, where you’d expect to see Smith hit her trademark dribble run early. I am a deep lying player, and she has been the class of the NWSL this year.
Linhan: Decision Day may have some other implications, particularly who will make up the shortlist for the award. Rodman has a legitimate case for improving spirits when she’s on the field. Weaver has come a long way in 2023 Thorn and Lynn Williams has been a game changer for Gotham FC. If I had a favorite name at this stage, it would be Adriana, the pride of Orlando.
Adriana will be seen in the lights of LA tonight 💥
@ORLPride takes the lead at BMO Stadium! pic.twitter.com/xIRjhTsmVi
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) October 3, 2023
Rutter: If your definition of a qualified MVP is “player who works the hardest,” then Adriana might give Coffey a run for her money. No player in the league has averaged more shots and chances created than Adriana’s 3.94 per 90 minutes. Among her teammates, only Martha has a rating above 1.4. But I think I’m leaning towards Coffey for this award. In a year where there is no clear runaway favorite, why not award the best all-rounder?
The best defender of the year
Rutter: It’s been a good year for defenders, which gives us a deep pool of qualified contenders.
Sam Staub is a reliable anchor for Washington, providing a serious boost in the build-up. Natalia Kuika does everything for Portland, creating opportunities on the right side without shirking her defensive responsibilities in the process. Orlando’s Kyle Strome has been the league’s best offensive fullback, and scoring the game-winner against Washington in May helps the “all-around impact” issue a bit. Last year’s winner Naomi Grace and New Zealand international Ally Riley maintained their usual good form for San Diego and Angel City on either side of the World Cup.
Linehan: Jeff, I asked you a big question when I came to you about this article, “Am I right in thinking that Ali Krieger has a fair shot at being named Defensive Player of the Year this year?” And I am. So in my annual tradition of getting excited about a particular award and nomination, I’m now going to jump on my Krieger hype train. I’ll leave the gap up to you, but with such a strong contender class this year, for me, Krieger is leading the way this season. She makes Gotham better when she’s on the field, and there’s a leadership element to her.
Rutter: It’s not just an eye exam, Krieger has struggled a lot this year. Her aerial combination winning rate isn’t impressive – after all, she’s a former fullback who now plays in the middle – but she’s done well with above-average clearances.
The real headliner is her commanding nature when the ball is on the ground. Adjusted interception refers to the number of times a player intercepts the ball per 1,000 touches made by another team. Likewise, they’re not just the challengers we all love, but they’re real reasons to tackle when a defender is caught in a tackle or a pass attempt is fouled.
Ali Krieger talks about the future when he retires
Krieger stands out as the clear front-runner here. Not only is she one of the best attackers on the ball, but she is also the best one-on-one defender on the ball. As for the past drip rate? The average NWSL defender (>1200 minutes) is dribbling more than 27.7% of the time this year. World Cup inclusions Alanna Cook and Glory have been top-scoring here, with the league’s second and third-placed opponents allowing only 12% and 13% of passes respectively. And then there’s Krieger, who lets 4.8% of her dribbles pass her. That is truly other-worldly!
Linehan: To circle around the Judgment Day theme, Krieger’s issue here could be with Gotham’s fortunes. If they let a run at the NWSL Shield get in their way, they will need to cap off the regular season with a win at home, coming off back-to-back losses.
Rookie of the year
Linehan: This one feels like a three way race, although I think there is a clear winner, Messiah Bright for the Orlando Pride. Her main competition is Jenna Nigswonger (Gotham FC) and no. 1 general election for Angel City, Alyssa Thompson.
Bright has had a lock on it for a while now, but is on her way to winning the Rookie of the Month and Player of the Month awards in August with three goals in four games. All three candidates won Rookie of the Month honors – Thomson had a strong start to her season, scoring 11 minutes in her NWSL debut. Nigswonger picked it up in May with two goals and one assist for a strong month. But going back to the earlier discussion around what makes a player valuable to their team, of the three, Bright easily has the best case out there — and she’s shown why the Pride could use her as a building block for years to come.
Martha asked Orlando Pride teammate and rookie forward @messiah_bright how much they admired her (and if she taught him any moves…). #PrideOrDie #NWSL pic.twitter.com/30RMKDC7j1
— Chris Brookes (@chris_brookes) October 11, 2023
The best goalkeeper of the year
Rutter: “Golden Boot in reverse” is an oversimplification, but a good starting point for deciding the Goalkeeper of the Year is to look at goals denied. Simply put, it’s a stat that compares the number of goals a player expects to the number of goals they’ve scored. That makes Gotham’s Abby Smith the 9.26 goals-against favorite. But here’s the thing: Smith has missed six games, last appearing on Aug. 20 in a 2-1 loss at San Diego. If she misses again on Decision Day, she’ll be out between the sticks for nearly a third of the season.
Three other goalies have strong goals-against performances: Anna Moorhouse (Orlando) at 6.17, Katie Lund (Louisville) at 5.83 and Jane Campbell (Houston) at 5.52. No other goalkeeper has more than 2.5. Of the three players, Lund and Campbell have faced the highest amount of shots, and Campbell leads Lund with 8 clean sheets to Louisville’s 6. The winner of any of those four would be a worthy winner, with Smith only being kept from the front runner position by this injury. on San Diego.
The best coach of the year
Linehan: It was this award that got me playing this post because if Angel City sneaks into the playoffs, I don’t know how we can ignore interim head coach Becky Tweed as a serious candidate.
Rutter: I feel like this is the most obvious fact I can give, but no interim coach in the history of the league has ever won this award.
And yet! Angel City went 10 games after firing Freya Coombe on June 14. Since then, they have lost just once and their 1.9 points per game clip following that change is the best in the league. They were previously tied at 0.82 points per game last time in the NWSL. They turned things around by defending aggressively and scoring timely goals. After Decision Day, Tweed will coach exactly half of the 22-game season. That sounds like an adequate sample size and should be taken seriously here.
Linehan: And I feel like voters love the narrative — and the vibe — of this award. In terms of the roster, I think Tweed might have competition from Sean Nahas (North Carolina Courage) and Casey Stoney (San Diego Wave), who, for the record, got the funniest red cards of the season.
Rutter: If our country’s best coolers played football…
Linehan: The missing name here is Mike Norris, the head coach of the Thorns. My guess is that, with Thorns sticking together from a successful 2022 roster, the team is so good that it won’t get a surprisingly large amount of awards attention. Is that correct? Controversial!
Rutter: It’s always very difficult for me to choose this one. Too often, it seems like a backhanded compliment: “Great job, coach, I thought your team would be a lot worse than this. Narratives can help fix that, and I don’t think we should discount a team’s gameplay if it’s pretty fun. All this to say: why not tweed?
(Top photo: USA Today Sports)