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As the NWSL Regular Season Ends, the Year of Angela Salem Continues

“She’s our glue. She’s a warrior. I think she should be the MVP for the NWSL season.”

Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Thorns FC

The Portland Thorns celebrated in the North End with the Rose City Riveters after their scoreless draw with the North Carolina Courage on Saturday. The Thorns previously clinched the NWSL Shield in PNC Stadium in Houston and were awarded the Shield before the final match of the regular season in Providence Park.

The Shield wasn’t the only award handed out on Saturday night. The Rose City Riveters gathered the players in front of the North End to announce their Supporters Player of the Year award. Anyone could vote for who they thought should win the award. Voting opened on October 24 and ran for six days. Bella Bixby and Madison Pogarch replied to the Rose City Riveters’ tweet urging people to vote for Angela Salem, who won the award.

“I’m so excited for [Salem] — we all voted for her,” said Emily Menges in the post-match press conference after the Thorns’ final regular season match. “She has been a rock on this team, she has played almost every minute of every game. [She] commands the defense and commands the midfield. She’s just a great person all around, a great teammate, she cares about every single one [of us], everyone cares about her. She’s like your All-American hardworking six. It’s amazing, I’m so happy for her.”

Salem was handed the award, much to the excitement of the entire Thorns team. The jubilance of the team in response to Salem being named SPOTY was evident when the trophy was handed to her and in her post-game video on social media. Salem spoke into the camera post-match to thank the fans and talk about the match. So much happened in the background.

Pogarch is seen on one side of Salem hoisting the SPOTY award, Becky Sauerbunn is on the other side of Salem pointing and nodding, Lindsey Horan pops in a yells “that’s my [expletive],” and Christine Sinclair comes in and shakes Salem and yells “Ang is the best!”

It’s not often a defensive midfielder is given proper recognition and credit for their effect on the ability of the team to function offensively and defensively. A great No. 6 is crucial for a team’s success and Salem has been just that, which is why I dubbed her the most underrated player in the NWSL this season. Recently she has been brought up as potentially the most valuable player in the league.

“Yeah, not sure what the company is, and I don’t want to say, because in England it’s different but a glue company, a famous glue company, maybe we can hit them up so that [Salem] could be the lead sponsor,” said head coach Mark Parsons after the 0-0 draw with the Courage. “Because she’s been our glue. She’s critical. You saw her tonight trying to chase Debinha around, shutting her down at just crucial moments. Debinha being forced into wide areas and now the fullbacks are pissed because they have to try and deal with Debinha.”

Salem has shut down attackers and midfielders throughout the season. She started 21 matches in the regular season and appeared in all 23 matches that the Thorns played. She also appeared in every Challenge Cup match and played 82 minutes in the WICC final. The only match she did not appear in this season was the Thorns 3-1 penalty kick win over the Houston Dash in the WICC.

Salem and Rocky Rodriguez split time at the defensive midfield role to start the season but Salem quickly became the go-to for Parsons and Rodriguez was deployed in her natural No. 8 position a little further up the field. This switch was ‘officially’ made on June 5. Salem started and played the full 90 minutes for the first time this season against Racing Louisville in a convincing 3-0 win.

The defensive midfielder’s deflected shot found the back of the net in the eighth minute - her first Thorns goal and her first goal since 2016. Later in the match, she added her first assist for the Portland Thorns. Salem would add a stunning volleyed goal to her 2021 tally in a 2-1 losing effort to OL Reign as well.

In the regular season, Salem completed 78.8% of her 945 attempted passes and added a team-high 43 key passes. But the statistics don’t paint a proper picture of Salem’s impact.

Salem is also the metronome that makes the Portland Thorns offense tick. She sets the tempo and fosters connectivity and control. What she has done with and without the ball throughout the season has helped make the Thorns ball-dominant and defensively solid.

“[She’s] a super, super talented midfielder and, in this country, you don’t see many players like this, and I understand, I get it,” said Parsons. “The ones who make the save or score the goal are the ones who often get the limelight. Soccer is about the brain. Soccer is about thinking and scanning and perception, space, time, opponent and dominating space and time. That’s Angela Salem. She is often two or three pages ahead of everyone. And I know it’s not normal in this country. We don’t often value that type of player. That’s how the sport has been built. That’s how this sport is played at the very, very highest level and we’re fortunate to have her here, playing her best football of her career.”

The No. 6 position is often overlooked and underappreciated by fans but it is a testament to her importance that the Thorns players campaigned for her to win the SPOTY award. We are witnessing a very special season from an even more special player. The Akron native has played professionally for eleven years across multiple leagues and throughout the entire history of the NWSL. She has always patrolled the midfield at a high level but she has reached new heights this season. Parsons said the team has asked her year after year to play one more season and did the same after she was honored with this award, and Parsons emphatically announced in his post-game press conference that Angela Salem should be the NWSL MVP.

“She’s so good on the ball,” said Parsons. “So good off the ball and as I’ve said, she’s been one of our best and most important players when we play well. But when the team hasn’t been its best, she’s also played unbelievably well. She’s our glue. She’s a warrior. I think she should be the MVP for the NWSL season. Not just in her performances but it’s also about how she is, how she leads, how she leads by example and the influence she has on and off the field. She’s learning to be a coach at the moment. She does a lot with the [Player’s Association]. She does a lot in our team.”

As Parsons explained, the defensive midfielder often fails to get the same plaudits that a goal scorer or a more flashy position player might. There is no runaway MVP candidate this year in the NWSL and it is unclear who will be given the prestigious title but it speaks to the level that Angela Salem has kept up all season that she is in the conversation for such an award. Whether or not she wins the title of the NWSL’s Most Valuable Player, she has had an outstanding, MVP-caliber campaign. This year truly has been the Year of Angela Salem and it could get even better for her as the Thorns battle for their fourth trophy of the season - the NWSL Championship.