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The NWSL Individual Awards don’t reflect the reality of the league

Voting is open for the individual NWSL awards. They’re all bad. Vote now!

The NWSL regular season is over, and with the close of the regular season come regular season awards. These awards are a subject of controversy every year, but more than that, they’re often not reflective of what the league has been like that year.

Many sports, of course, have quite bad individual awards. Many leagues in which writers are far better compensated for their time feature voters who do not watch all of the games. That’s all part of the reality of how sports are perceived. To some extent all individual awards are popularity contests. Why get so worked up about it?

It’s worth picking individual awards apart, because they are the most accessible store of league memory. When people look back to find the story of different NWSL seasons, this is the place they will start to find whose performances mattered in different years. Without widely available advanced statistics for league history, the only way for most people to really form their own opinions about whether they’re right is to go back and watch all the old seasons themselves.

Go forth and vote on the NWSL awards, but do so with some perspective on what the awards are missing. Editor’s note: Voting is actually closed. Sorry.

Bennett Dewan

Coach of the Year:

The initial voting for the awards process is heavily weighted toward players, which goes a long way toward explaining why all past winners (Andonovski, Harvey, Parsons and Riley) have all been coaches known for cultivating good relationships with players. Nearly every single Coach of the Year winner has also won the NWSL Shield. The only one who didn’t win the award in a Shield-winning year was Vlatko Andonovski’s 2013 Kansas City team, who finished the season level on points but behind on goal difference with a star-studded Western New York Flash side. The missing element in every award but that one has been any kind of acknowledgement of what a team was starting with at the beginning of the season and what they accomplished given the difficulty.

This year’s finalists: Mark Parsons, Paul Riley, Vlatko Andonovski. Andonovski is up for his second award, and probably deserves it. The way he’s taken an underachieving Seattle team to the playoffs by cutting the fat and picking up some gems out of the scrap heap to make a championship-caliber first XI, along with young talent ready to take the next step on the bench, has been a real accomplishment. Paul Riley’s North Carolina team have been relentless and record setting, but in truth, it’s the same team that won the Shield last year and were denied in the final—it would have been more surprising had they failed with that kind of motivation. Mark Parsons’s Thorns have come through a lot of adversity to get where they are, and though he might not get the credit for it, the way the Thorns have met the challenge of becoming championship contenders again deserves some.

The snubs: Rory Dames has never won and only made one shortlist. That seems to be largely down to the perception that his teams have underachieved, but he remains the only coach who has taken a team out of the doldrums and into regular playoff contention largely through the NWSL college draft (which as we’ll get to later is far more difficult than it seems). The fact that Vera Pauw is not even a finalist this year is a demonstration of, among other things, a very short memory span. The Houston Dash were a perpetual problem child before this year, permanent basement dwellers who had never broken the 24-point mark and never made the playoffs. Under Pauw they set their all time club record for points and wins and nearly snuck into the top four. All while failing to land their marquee offseason signing in Christen Press and losing the player who created the most chances in the league in 2017 in Andressinha.

Canada v United States Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

Defender of the Year:

Probably the least bad of the individual player awards. Defending had not been invented for the first three years of the NWSL, so Becky Sauerbrunn won the award in all of those years. One or even two Defender of the Year awards for a player of Sauerbrunn’s quality is fine, but her 2015 award seemed more like an award for her play at the World Cup than in the NWSL, where she was only able to play 11 games. The award has improved a bit since then, but it can still feel at times as though voters are favoring household names, since defensive stats are often hard to interpret. Notably, no fullback has never won the award.

This year’s finalists: Abby Erceg, Becky Sauerbrunn, Emily Sonnett, Julie Ertz, Abby Dahlkemper. Sonnett has been good but this season feels a little shy of her excellent 2017. Ertz only played as a defender for part of the year, and while she undoubtedly looked good there, it seems a little strange for her to be making the list with so much time out. Sauerbrunn is fine on the shortlist, as ever. Abby Erceg and Abby Dahlkemper both were essential to North Carolina’s season but popular perception does seem to be turning in favor of Erceg, especially given how cleanly her influence has translated into statistics this year.

The snubs: No nominations from a very good defensive team in Seattle this year is a bit strange. Megan Oyster in particular, a revelation this year after getting picked up from the Boston Breakers dispersal draft, is a weird miss. This award seems to be given out a year late: Lauren Barnes earned her defender of the year award in 2016 for her performance in 2015, and this year is an opportunity to get Abby Erceg the plaudits she deserves for this year and last year. Emily Menges’ award for her 2016 season is presumably just lost in the mail somewhere. The question of what kind of a season a fullback would have to have to win is an interesting one: Ali Kreiger at the peak of her powers in 2014 had a case, as did Steph Catley in 2017. They just don’t tend to produce the highlight reels or the praise that central defenders do (which may go some way to explaining why American soccer doesn’t produce any).

United States v Germany Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Goalkeeper of the Year:

Alyssa Naeher’s 2014 Boston Breakers season and subsequent win is a good demonstration of what this award is about. Naeher set the single season record for saves then with 106. By contrast, a more confident-looking Naeher hasn’t even made the final ballot in 2018. Her shots to saves ratio is better this year and she has had incredible games, but she just hasn’t put up the raw number of saves she did playing for a poor Breakers team.

The fact is that comparing goalkeepers who play for good teams and those who play for bad teams is very hard. The standard metrics—clean sheets earned and saves made—almost describe completely different kinds of goalkeeping play. Is it harder to be a goalkeeper for a great team whose main job is keeping focused and organizing defenses, or is it harder to face a million shots a game and keep picking yourself up? Without a robust debate in NWSL media, it can feel as though the public is flying blind in terms of how to interpret goalkeeping performances, highlighted by the internet campaign to call Aubrey Bledsoe up to the USWNT based solely on her ability to perform for a poor team.

This year’s finalists: Lydia Williams, Adrianna Franch, Aubrey Bledsoe. Franch showed her quality when in the team, especially in the recent semifinal, but this is a regular-season award and 14 games is probably too few for most voters. The buzz around Aubrey Bledsoe is based on her breaking the single-season record for saves (alongside Kailen Sheridan), but that’s really just an indication of how bad her Washington Spirit team was. Williams’s performances this year, though, have been nearly flawless: 10 clean sheets for her on the season after having to win her spot from the 2015 goalkeeper of the year, Michelle Betos. The Seattle Reign faced almost twice as many shots on target as North Carolina did over the course of the season but only let in two more goals.

The snubs: Most of the great goalkeepers in the league have won it once, though it is interesting to think about how we would consider Hope Solo’s NWSL legacy had she won over Alyssa Naeher in 2014. Had Naeher not gotten an award that year there might be a more serious campaign for her to be in the conversation this year.

Nikita Taparia

Most Valuable Player:

A notoriously pointless award, with all of the award winners up to this point being a duplication of the Golden Boot award. In many cases this is fine: no one really doubts that Kim Little or Crystal Dunn were the best players in the league when they won their award.

Were they the most valuable players, though? Kim Little and Sam Kerr’s value as players is pretty clear because of how badly their teams fell off without their contributions, and although the Spirit’s post-2016 situation is pretty complicated, you could say something similar about Crystal Dunn. Without natural experiments like that, though, voters are often left adding up box scores, which makes it entirely predictable that the only winners have been forwards or attacking midfielders.

This year’s finalists: Lindsay Horan, Sam Kerr, Megan Rapinoe, Lynn Williams, McCall Zerboni. Rapinoe had a pretty good case early on in the season before she started missing games, which is the same story she had last season. McCall Zerboni has been essential to the way that a historic Courage team has functioned. Lynn Williams has scored a lot of goals for that great team. Sam Kerr has a strong case, having moved clubs and continued to produce at an extremely high level, nearly matching her record breaking 2017 goal total in less games. Horan’s combination of being the main conduit for her team’s offense from deep in midfield as well as being the third top scorer in the league should prove too much for the voters to deny, and rightly so.

The snubs: Crystal Dunn being left off the list this year is weird: the player whose addition propelled last year’s shield winners into possibly the best team in pro women’s soccer history surely merits consideration. The biggest historical crime of them all is, of course Tobin Heath’s 2016 season. The NWSL had an unbalanced season that year and the Western New York Flash scored 17 goals over four games on a Boston team that couldn’t get off 10th place all year. The Thorns, meanwhile, played four games against one of the league’s most accomplished defenses in the Seattle Reign. Heath’s assists numbers from that year have yet to be matched.

Nikita Taparia

Rookie of the Year:

The worst must absolutely come last. This isn’t just a bad award for its iffy predictive power for its award winner’s future careers (which is mostly excusable) but for the fact that who the winners and finalists are have more often than not failed to tell the story of the league. A large part of that is down to the criteria, evidence of American soccer’s lasting fixation with college soccer, which has increasingly little influence in how players will perform in professional leagues.

In order to be considered a rookie you must be playing in your first professional season. This essentially limits the award to players coming through the US NCAA system, where the hit rate for first-year players is going down every year. 2018 was a particularly bad year for draftees because of the loss of the roster spots that the Boston Breakers offered, but this is just a continuation of the trend that became clear in 2017. Ashley Hatch won the award, probably correctly, on limited minutes for the Shield winners. The two runners-up played for the bottom team, the Washington Spirit, and all of the nominees this year play for two of the worst teams ever.

This year’s finalists: Savannah McCaskill, Imani Dorsey, Andi Sullivan. McCaskill is the obvious pick simply because she’s been the biggest presence on her team consistently, even if said team posted the worst record in professional women’s soccer history. Imani Dorsey, also playing for Sky Blue, could have a stronger case if her team knew what they had in her all year, but limited minutes means she likely misses out.

Andi Sullivan, meanwhile, has managed to go from being the anointed deep-lying midfielder of the future to playing herself out of national team contention during her time at the Washington Spirit, and is in the list on name recognition.

The snubs: Where to start? 2013 isn’t a bad place: Erika Tymrak didn’t have a bad year, but 18-year old Caitlin Foord (who made the second team best XI playing in what we now know is not her favored position) was ineligible due to playing in a pre-CBA W-League, before minimum salaries were introduced. Emily Sonnett becoming a key feature of the league’s best defense in 2016 was left to one side in favor of Raquel Rodriguez’s work in Sky Blue’s midfield.

2018, though, is the most drastic failure of all for this award. Young players have come into the league and made an immediate impact, but none of the youngest and most impactful players are eligible. Ellie Carpenter locking down a spot in the defense of the second best team in the league at 18 years old is excluded from consideration. Linda Motlhalo’s strong season at the base of a much improved Houston Dash midfield at 20 years old is also out (despite confusion from the league over her status initially). If the rookie of the year award is excluding strong performances from young players and including those from 22 year olds, it’s probably a pretty broken award.