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Morgan Gautrat: Stealth MVP Candidate

Morgan Gautrat has won two World Cups, twice won the MAC Hermann Trophy, and has won a Golden Ball for the US Women’s National Team. But she might be having her best year yet right now, and it’s flying almost entirely under the radar.

We are now roughly three-quarters of the way through the NWSL season, and the MVP race seems to be wide open. Many players have made a case for themselves—with plenty of standouts among the strikers and goalkeepers. That’s generally how these things go; the players with the most direct goal contributions tend to win the big awards. But if the season ended today, my pick for MVP would be a player with two goals and no assists.

Gautrat’s contributions are not the flashiest. But she has been the engine that makes the Chicago team run, the metronome that allows them to hold everything together. And she is one of the key reasons why this team—which has struggled enormously in both penalty areas—is still in with a good shout to make the playoffs.

Her most important contributions are in managing the tempo and linking together defense and attack. That’s true in a literal, physical sense, given her position as a holding midfielder who occupies the space between the backline and the attack. But it’s also true in terms of her style of play: her ability to consistently find (or manufacture) space in between the lines, her positional awareness, the fluidity of her play.

A world class holding midfielder doesn’t merely shield the backline. They also serve as the fulcrum of the attack, the pivot around which the rest of play can develop. Together with Sarah Woldmoe (another criminally underrated player), Gautrat has played that dual role to perfection. She has an uncanny ability to read play. That translates to a good number of interceptions, tackles, and pressures. It also contributes to the critically important (but mostly invisible) task of disrupting the opposition by occupying the space that they want to play through.

One of the things that defined her early-career success was a preternatural agility. When she first arrived on the international scene, she was deputized as a holding midfielder position that she had not played much of in her college days. Yet her athleticism and her intelligence in terms of reading the game allowed her to be pesky and consistently troublesome for posing attacks. She could track a movement, twist expertly and somehow come out of a challenge in possession and ready to initiate an attack. Some of those elements have partially dropped out of her repertoire. She’s also lost half a step in her acceleration. But to make up for those deficits, she’s added some new elements.

For one thing, she’s a far more physical presence. She has shockingly good numbers when it comes to aerial duels, and great numbers for normal duels (both contesting a huge amount and winning a high percentage). More generally, she just plays with a more aggressive and bruising style these days. She’s not a violent player—notwithstanding her newly-acquired nickname ‘The Butcher’—but she definitely can match the physicality of the league. For evidence, you only have to watch Chicago’s June matchup against North Carolina.

Gautrat and Woldmoe dominated the game, making a potent North Carolina team look absolutely helpless. Obviously, the Courage of 2021 are not exactly the same team who dominated the league over the previous few years. But it’s still notable just how completely Chicago throttled them in that game. It’s something no one has been able to do to North Carolina since they became North Carolina.

She’s also taking on a lot more playmaking responsibilities these days. Most of the time, that means playing the passes that set up the final balls into the box. But she’s also acquired some freedom—thanks to the pairing with Woldmoe—to step forward on occasion and play more of a creative role in the final stages. In some ways, that’s a reference back to her very early career when she was an attacking 8 in college. But now there’s a great deal more depth involved.

And while it’s hardly the most important feature of her game, Gautrat has even added a bit of goal-scoring the last couple years, chipping in three goals over the two Challenge Cups and the Fall Series, along with a couple penalties during the regular season this year. Scoring penalties isn’t the most difficult thing in the world. But in a league where players seem to miss penalties for fun, it’s not nothing.

To sum it all up, there’s one very simple metric to characterize her importance: Gautrat has missed three games this year. With her, Chicago have a +5 goal difference and 26 points from 16 games. Without her, they’ve lost three times, scored no goals, and conceded eight.

At this point, Gautrat’s history may be obscuring her present greatness

Gautrat burst onto the national scene in 2015, as one of the key players at the World Cup. But for those who had been following her career, this was hardly a surprise. She was voted the best player in college in each of the previous two seasons and was the easy consensus #1 draft pick in that year’s NWSL draft.

The trajectory led relentlessly upward and there hardly seemed to be any limits to her potential. She saw limited minutes for the Houston Dash, but was—by leaps and bounds—their best player. By early 2016, she was probably the best and most consistent performer on the US squad as well. She won the golden ball at the Concacaf Olympic Qualifying tournament that winter—which is not much of a tournament to be sure, but any time a holding midfielder wins that sort of award, you tend to take notice.

To my eyes, she was on the shortlist of players who could credibly be talked about as one of the best in the world.

Unfortunately, injuries quickly began to take their toll. She missed significant time in the spring of 2016 and was not able to exert the same influence at the Olympics as she had done at the previous year’s World Cup. Consistent nagging health issues limited her minutes over the next few years, and left her far less dominant even when she could make the field.

A move to Lyon in 2018 seemed exciting, but she barely made the field for them. She ended up back at Chicago—who had acquired her rights the previous year. She actually settled in fairly nicely with the Red Stars, being a very important contributor for the team over the next few years. But injuries still kept her from playing a central role for the team.

She ended up back on the National Team for the 2019 World Cup, but the experience this time around was quite different. She only appeared in one game—an easy group stage game against Chile—and was clearly there just for squad depth and experience.

It’s worth dwelling on that history for a moment because it shows why Gautrat has actually been somewhat overlooked in recent years. The highs were so high and the fallow period so long that a narrative of terminal decline managed to set in. But that narrative isn’t really true. Gautrat has been one of the best players in the NWSL for several years, albeit in somewhat limited minutes.

In 2021, that one flaw has been addressed. She’s been healthy, and with her no longer getting national team call-ups, she’s been able to play regularly all season. And the performances have been excellent. She isn’t the exact same player that she was at 22, of course. But if the shape of her contributions has changed a bit, the overall impact really has not.

Gautrat almost certainly will not be the MVP this year. Those almost exclusively go to the players who top the scoring charts. But it’s been a notably poor year for finishing. If ever there was a chance to reward the player who makes the engine run, rather than just looking to whoever ends up with the golden boot, it’s now in 2021. So here’s hoping that everyone with a vote in this race takes a good long look at Gautrat’s superb season and gives it the consideration it deserves.

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