What the heck happened with the NWSL Best XI?
Updated: Jan 1
The NWSL released its ‘Best XI’ and ‘Second XI’ yesterday evening and the lists were immediately dragged by everyone: fans, media, and players alike. Even moms got involved. Any voting process can produce a few odd choices; indeed, the controversy is part of the fun. But this went far beyond a few odd choices.
If there was any doubt, one only has to list the MVP finalists next to the Best XI and realize that Sam Kerr is the only player to make both lists. Yes, the other four finalists for best player in the league didn’t even make the Best XI.
In their place: a bunch of players who missed significant time. In fact, only three of the eleven selected appeared in more than 14 of their team’s 24 games. It’s certainly possible to produce enough value in 1000 minutes to justify inclusion (I listed several such players myself on my own ballot), but when eight of the eleven missed significant time, you start to wonder. And then consider that Rose Lavelle made the best XI despite playing in only six games.
Bless the heart of whoever was tasked with writing this entry pic.twitter.com/8xDHqBR0H0 — Charles Olney (@olneyce) October 24, 2019
Other US World Cup stars made the list despite limited NWSL playing time, and despite performing well below their usual standard. Tobin Heath had a few vintage Heath performances early in the season, but was a shadow of her normal self this year. She made the cut. The same is true for Lindsey Horan. Last year’s MVP was clearly never fully healthy this year, and struggled to make her usual impression. Ali Krieger played 12 games for the league’s worst defense. She’s on the list. Megan Rapinoe (5 matches and 333 minutes!) made the Second XI. So did Kelley O’Hara (242 minutes!!!).
These are all great players, no doubt. But it strains credibility to argue that any of them were even close to being among the best in the league based on their actual performances this year.
Does it matter?
In the grand scheme of things, awards are pretty insignificant. But they do matter. People care about them—fans, media, and players. Crystal Dunn offered some illuminating comments on this issue at media day before the NWSL final: “There’s so many people deserving of accolades and it breaks my heart because I see them day in and day out working extremely hard, busting their ass, doing what they especially want to do for this team every day, and they don’t get recognition.”
So while there are no objective standards for who ultimately ‘deserves’ a given award, they also aren’t purely subjective. Controversy is fine, even good for the league. But a list like the one they released yesterday goes well beyond controversy. It’s a bad look to produce something so clearly untethered to reality. At a time when it’s especially important to be raising standards, this makes the league look amateurish.
This should be an opportunity for the league to show off, not something we feel like we have to hide.
Who is responsible?
So what actually happened here?
It’s actually unclear. The standard problem when you get results like this is skewed votes from fans (remember when Deyna Castellanos inexplicably came in third for world player of the year?). And certainly some fans must have simply voted for their national team favorites. But fan voting was only 20% of the total. Staff also received 20%, as did the media, while the players got 40%.
And we know how the players voted, because they told us. And it’s a pretty reasonable list. Maybe a little too stacked with North Carolina players, but they did win the league. And there certainly aren’t any obvious mistakes here.
Could the media vote have been responsible? Anything is possible, but it doesn’t seem likely. There were some serious issues with distribution of ballots—with many of the most knowledgeable people in the business failing to get the chance to vote—but plenty of folks did get to vote. And you can see a likely distribution of those votes by checking out the SBNation staff selections. Another extremely reasonable list. Reducing the number of media votes shouldn’t matter so long as even a few voters do get through the door.
One alternative possibility does present itself: an error in tabulation. As anyone who does a lot of data entry knows, it’s all too easy to screw everything up with one accidental deletion, one careless copy-and-paste, one mistyped equation. Given the staffing issues, and given all the other things going on with the league—the playoffs, expansion, significant changes in league structure—it’s certainly plausible that a mistake was made somewhere in the process.
Perhaps instead of the fan vote being weighted at 20%, each individual vote from a fan was weighted at 20%, while each individual vote from a media member was 20%, and so forth. Given that fan votes presumably massively outnumbered all the other votes, this would potentially explain the result.
Or maybe it’s something even simpler. An equation mis-typed, a locked account that couldn’t be opened. Something like that.
Transparency isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s better than nothing
The real hope here is that this disaster will inspire reforms. We’ve already seen suggestions bandied about, and those conversations will continue as we move forward. But one thing should be part of any proposal: more transparency. If the results strain credibility, at least show us the numbers. Don’t let the result be a black box; let us see who voted, and how that added up to the final result.
Sunshine can’t disinfect everything, but unless there is some special need for secrecy, it’s generally best to let everyone see how it happened. That’s a lesson the league has rarely learned, but we shouldn’t give up hope.