NWSL Vibe Check: It’s time for newcomer of the year, most improved and more

Welcome back to NWSL Vibe Check! The place where you get my unfiltered takes and an insider’s view on all things women’s soccer. All 14 NWSL clubs have played 8-9 games, which means there’s just a handful of matches till the 2024 regular season reaches the halfway point of the season. There’s still plenty of time in the 26-game schedule for things to change on the league table, but several individual performances are shining week to week, driving the conversation around end-of-year awards as the middle of the season looms.

Individual awards consist of five categories and are the more traditional individual recognition. Most valuable player, best coach, defender, goalkeeper, and rookie of the year. There’s also the NWSL Golden Boot that gets awarded. Nearly each of these categories already has some early midway candidates.

So it got me thinking, with front runners already taking shape for the league’s typical yearly awards, is it time to expand the award pool to include more recognition? NWSL is celebrating its 12th year and defining its next decade, so let’s have some fun and introduce some awards that need to be added.

Newcomer of the Year

The NWSL has always had international athletes playing in the league since its founding alongside inaugural partnerships with U.S. Soccer, Canada Soccer, and the Mexican Football Federation. Not long ago, the NWSL was a landing spot for several Australian players, and several iconic Matildas elevated their game in the United States, including Caitlin Foord, Ellie Carpenter, and Sam Kerr.

Last season we saw an increase in Brazilian players (that’s still growing), and this season we’re witnessing the best African players ball out. Several of these players are already in conversations for existing end-of-year awards, but an Arrival Award (a play on newcomer) would recognize first-year players who are playing in the NWSL for the first time, whether or not they are an international player. This would include U.S.-born players who begin their careers overseas and return to play in NWSL for the first time.

If the award existed, who could be in contention?

Temwa Chawinga (Kansas City Current): The Malawian international is in her first year with the Kansas City Current and she’s already in the running for NWSL Golden Boot and MVP. With such a hot start to the season, she leads Kansas City with five goals and is tied for second on the team with three assists. She’s showing no signs of slowing down, and that’s beneficial for her and the Current as they look to contend.

Bia Zaneratto (Kansas City Current): She’s gotten off to a quick start and put the league on notice with four goals and three assists, but she’s managing an injury at the moment, and if she gets back into form, she would be a candidate for this award too if it existed.

Ji So-Yun (Seattle Reign FC): Unfortunately, when people vote for things, they pay attention to contending teams, and Seattle’s underachieving season to date means this player may have gone unnoticed by causals. But make no mistake, Ji is already a self-made legend on South Korea’s national team and in Europe during her time with Chelsea FC. Despite the Reign’s current record, she’s slotted in seamlessly for head coach Laura Harvey and has been the connective tissue in the midfield. She’ll keep winning fouls in the league, and if the Reign start to punch above their weight, she might finally get more recognition.

Most Improved Player

A great opportunity for maybe second or third-year players who have played a semi-starting role, to get recognition that they may have missed out on their rookie season while getting acclimated to NWSL and being a full-time pro athlete. We’ve always heard about how difficult it is to crack an NWSL roster, and it’s even harder making your way as a starting option, so here’s to the players making that leap.

Summer Yates (Orlando Pride): Drafted by the Pride in 2023, the second-year midfielder has taken that next step as a pro. She’s stringing together performances that make the coaching staff’s decisions harder, and that’s exactly the type of player you want on a roster.

Gabrielle Robinson (Kansas City Current): We have to show some love to defenders in this category and we’re going right to Robinson for this one. Drafted by the Current in 2023 during the second round, she was thrown into the fire her rookie season after injuries to key starters. In her sophomore season, she’s locked up the left centerback position, is third in the league in clearances (54) and has become the perfect CB partner alongside Elizabeth Ball.

Legacy Player Award

An opportunity for long-term players to get recognition for a particular career year. Criteria met for the category would be to have played at least six seasons in NWSL and played at least half of the current season. Here’s who I would have in the running for this award with nine weeks gone by.

Vanessa DiBernardo (Kansas City Current): She’s already a dark horse for MVP with five assists and three goals for Kansas City. Her five assists this year are just two short of her career-high seven assists in 2016 with Chicago Red Stars. She’s on fire for Kansas City right now, creating and connecting, and would be considered a front-runner for this award if it existed.

Marta (Orlando Pride): She’s finally getting an opportunity to have a year where she is the seasoned veteran in a semi-starting role. Still capable of making Marta magic, the 38-year-old has two goals in six games and is fourth on the team in chances created. If the coaching staff stays calculated with her, she might just rack up some more goals and finally get the Pride back in the postseason for the first time since her arrival in 2017.

Executive of the Year

I’m not sure we’ll ever get this type of award here as the league continues to lay the foundation of its next decade by ensuring players are safe, celebrated, and supported. But this is an award that does exist in other pro leagues, including the WNBA, and if it did exist here, these would be my candidates.

Yael Averbuch West (NJ/NY Gotham FC): The east coast executive is coming off a 2023 NWSL Championship and made headlines during the offseason signing four U.S. women’s national team players via free agency. The club is managing injuries through their super team era, but they’re quietly making a rise up the table.

Haley Carter (Orlando Pride): Perhaps a clear front-runner if this award existed. Carter’s offseason was both strategic and calculated. Believing in your current players and signing the right ones to take them to the next level has been a recipe for early success. Angelina, Barbra Banda, and Morgan Gautrat have been key players, the squad is unbeaten in nine games, and positioning themselves for a possible post-season run.

Mark Krikorian (Washington Spirit): The jokes on all of us because Krikorian’s draft day moves have already paid off. He raised some questions when he traded Sam Staab and Ashley Sanchez, but moving up in the draft to snag Croix Bethune and Hal Hersfelt is looking like a visionary-level type of deal now. Signing Casey Krueger in free agency and ensuring more league experience on the pitch and in the locker room was also a major move.

Leave a Comment