Route Two Soccer: My 2019 NWSL Awards Ballot
Updated: Jan 1
It’s time for some end of the year votes. Here’s my take on who should win the big awards.
I am a longtime advocate of the ‘goals are overrated’ thesis, and have often been frustrated that the MVP award is really just a proxy for the Golden Boot award. But I don’t see how you could reasonably argue for anyone other than Sam Kerr as the 2019 NWSL MVP. She’s playing on an absolutely ridiculous level, and there’s no one else in the world who can match it right now. She participated directly in 23 goals (18 goals + 5 assists). That’s more than two entire teams scored (Sky Blue finished with 20 goals and Houston with 21). And she left for a month to go to the World Cup!
The gap between #1 and #2 is large, but the others are fairly close. In second place I have Casey Short, who deserves a huge amount of credit for the Red Stars’ best season yet (more on her below). After that I’ve got Christen Press and Crystal Dunn, both of whom missed about half the season but were so otherworldly-good during their limited time that they sneak onto the list. Dunn is the piece that transforms North Carolina from a very good team into an unbeatable one, while Press is the difference between Utah as a struggling bottom-feeder and a playoff contender. In fifth place I have Andi Sullivan, who took a massive step forward after a disappointing first season. Of all the players left off the World Cup roster, she’s probably the most likely to muscle her way into the Olympic 18 for 2020.
Rookie of the Year
This is one of the deepest rookie classes we’ve seen in a long time. Just consider that players like Tierna Davidson and Jordan DiBiasi don’t even make the top three.
You could make a strong case for Staab as the winner here. Defending is hard, especially when you cycle out your entire defensive line and swap in a bunch of first and second year players. And Staab stepped into the role seamlessly, helping Washington produce one of the league’s stingiest defenses. But ultimately I sided with Balcer, who not only poured in goals but who also proved critical to building play and to an aggressive defensive press.
Still, as good as both Staab and Balcer were, they only top this list because of Seiler’s season-ending injury. It’s no coincidence that Portland stumbled badly once Seiler was unavailable. She was central to orchestrating their possession. There are few players in the world with her positional awareness and passing acumen. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see a full season from her.
Goalkeeper of the Year
Plenty of strong competitors here, including a few that were very good in limited minutes after spending a bunch of time away for the World Cup. I have Sheridan above the crowd for her consistency and range of abilities. She’s excellent at stopping shots, good at collecting crosses and controlling her box, and reasonably good with her feet. She struggled a bit in 2018, and understandably so given the horror show of the defense in front of her. But with a stabilized unit this year, she played with confidence and calmness, and was a big part of the reason Sky Blue conceded 18 fewer goals this season than they did last year. In fact, if you go by the advanced stats, she’s responsible for the majority of that improvement.
Defender of the Year
We sometimes throw superlatives around a little too easily, but Casey Short had a genuinely unbelievable year. She was voted on the Team of the Month for every single month of the season, and deservedly so. She’s always been a great defender, but took it to another level this year. She can play on either side, giving her team the flexibility to shut down whichever wing might pose a greater threat on the day. Her footwork is rock solid, her positioning good. And she even contributes a decent amount going forward. Just the complete package.
Oyster has been a stealth candidate for one of the league’s best center backs for a few years now, and this year was no different. You could make a similar case for her partner Lou Barnes, but for my money Oyster is the more important player at this point, thanks to her range and her anticipation.
The list is rounded out with Hinkle, who is not without controversy, and who is rarely talked about as one of the key figures on this absurdly dominant North Carolina team. But she is the best attacking fullback in the league by a long way, and contributes quite a bit defensively as well.
Coach of the Year
The easiest vote on the ballot – even easier than picking Kerr. What Andonovski managed this year, taking an injury-ravaged Reign team to the playoffs, is arguably the greatest coaching accomplishment the league has yet seen. As with all of Vlatko’s teams, they were defensively solid, calm in possession, and consistently hard to break down. To play that way under the best of conditions is impressive; to manage it through unprecedented roster turnover is genuinely astonishing.
We’ve grown used to the dominance of North Carolina but it’s still worth noting how Riley has been able to keep his team firing on all cylinders. It’s always hard to come back after a record-breaking season, and they could easily have fallen to pieces once they started to struggle a bit early in the season. But he kept them moving and once everyone returned from the World Cup, they sliced through the rest of the league like a hot knife through butter.
Rounding out the list is Rory Dames, whose Red Stars just put together their most complete season yet. I’ve written a lot about Chicago in the past few years, wondering why this collection of exceptional players couldn’t ever quite play up to their abilities. In 2019, they did it. This is now the smoothest-passing and most aesthetically-pleasing team in the league to watch, and the results have followed as well.
Team of the Season
Christen Press – Sam Kerr – Carli Lloyd
Crystal Dunn – Andi Sullivan – Kristie Mewis
Jaelene Hinkle – Megan Oyster – Becky Sauerbrunn – Casey Short
Most of these should be obvious from the comments above. But it’s worth noting Kristie Mewis, who is playing some of the best soccer of her life, and Carli Lloyd who continutes to shut up all her critics (myself included). Becky Sauerbrunn isn’t really Becky Sauerbrunn anymore, but she’s still great, and still somehow consistently underrated.
Yuki Nagasato – Lynn Williams – Kristen Hamilton
Debinha – Sarah Killion – Denise O’Sullivan
Meghan Klingenberg – Abby Erceg – Julie Ertz – Tori Huster
Lots of great players here, including several that I’ve called overrated in the past. But not even I can deny how critical both Debinha and O’Sullivan have been to sustaining the North Carolina machine. I would never have guessed that Tori Huster would be in my second XI as a right back of all things, but she made a strong transition into the job.
The three toughest calls were leaving out Christine Sinclair, Gabby Seiler, and Morgan Brian, each of whom was exceptional in limited minutes. But spots are limited and ultimately I decided to err in favor of players like Killion, O’Sullivan, and Williams who contributed a lot more bulk.