As we head toward the end of the seventh season of the NWSL we happen to also be heading to the end of this decade. And who doesn’t like a ceremonial team to celebrate that passage of time?
Ceremonial teams are tricky things to construct. Do you pick the very best in each category? Do you try to create the ultimate team out of the players offered? Do you go with who you think of personally, or do you gather other people’s ideas of who should make it? Do you list just the starting XI or do you select the full team?
After thinking about the possibilities for this team in just the midfield alone I decided I needed some help. And help I was thankfully able to find. I managed to convince 18 women’s soccer writers and media folks to take a survey. I offered them the cloak of anonymity with the option to speak up if they wanted to out themselves as having participated.
To decide who would be on the survey I went back to the history books. I took players who were voted Player of the Week and Month, players who made the first and second XI at the end of each NWSL season and anyone else I thought should be included. I also left a space for my helpers to submit anyone I’d forgotten. There was a vote for the starting player in any position and then another spot for a backup. Players were awarded two points for a starting vote and one point for a vote as a backup. And before I get comments, they had to have played at least three seasons in the NWSL to be included.
I was fully ready to override the group if I felt someone wasn’t included that I felt worthy. But it turns out after I tallied all the votes I agreed with them without having to use any executive overrides. Always a good place to be.
As for the team itself, I decided to break NWSL roster rules and go with 23 instead of the current max of 22. I am always going to include an extra goalkeeper when I can and there was a tie for second place in the goalkeeping ranks anyway. So, why not?
Starting goalkeeper: Nicole Barnhart
Backup goalkeepers: Alyssa Naeher and Michelle Betos
Goalkeeper that just missed the cut: Hope Solo
Nicole Barnhart is arguably the greatest goalkeeper in NWSL history. With her two NWSL titles (2014, 2015 – both with FCKC) and her work for the Utah Royals FC it’s hard to argue against her being the net-minder on an All Decade Team. Since she won Goalkeeper of the Year in 2013 she has been a force in the back for both FCKC and The Royals.
Behind her in the depth chart, Alyssa Naeher and Michelle Betos tied on points with eight each. Naeher did have more first place votes for what that’s worth, three to two.
Both Naeher and Betos have seen significant minutes in the league over the nearly seven year history of the league. Both have been solid to exceptional during those years. Both players also have NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year awards under their belts as well. They are solid, what moer can I say?
Overall the goalkeeping is locked down with these three on the roster.
Starting defenders: Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Erceg, Lauren Barnes, Steph Catley
Back up defenders: Ali Krieger, Emily Menges, Abby Dahlkemper
Defender(s) that just missed the cut: Casey Short and Christie Pearce
I did not plan to have two center backs and two outside backs in the starting four. That was just a happy accident of voting and of who was selected. Have to love it when things come together like that.
Let’s get this out of the way first and foremost. Becky Sauerbrunn is the best defender the league has seen, questionable Defender of the Year award in 2015 not withstanding. She might be the very best center back the US has ever produced and in the conversation for the top center back ever in the women’s game. Abby Erceg has been consistently one of the top defenders in the league and, based on countless hours of watching her play with Dahlkemper who is much closer to Sauerbrunn’s style than people give her credit for, would be a well suited partner in central defense for Sauerbrunn.
Lauren Barnes gets the call as an outside back that can play center back or a center back that can play outside back depending on when you last watched (Seattle) Reign FC. Steph Catley has graced the pitch for Portland, Orlando and the Reign over her time in the NWSL. And when healthy, sometimes a bigger question than others, she might be the most dynamic outside back in the league.
We need to talk about Emily Menges. She is the only field player on this roster that doesn’t have a cap with their national team. She has been one of the very best in the league since she entered it in 2014 and really should be in the McCall Zerboni/Jess McDonald category of NWSL players who played themselves into national team contention.
Ali Krieger and Abby Dahlkemper round out the defense. Krieger has been consistently one of the top outside backs in the league, and can play center back in a pinch. Dahlkemper has only been in the league since 2015 but in that time she has helped her team win two league titles, one shield and been to the NWSL finals three straight times.
Starting attackers: Sam Kerr, Kim Little, Lauren Holiday, Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath, Crystal Dunn
Back up attackers: Jessica McDonald, Jess Fishlock, McCall Zerboni, Megan Rapinoe, Amy Rodriguez, Lindsey Horan, Christen Press
Attackers that just missed the cut: Allie Long and Lynn Williams
I’m going to level with you. As I was putting this together I ran into the age old problem of “is Tobin Heath or Megan Rapinoe or (insert player here that you have a question about) a forward or a midfielder” and that problem drives me a little crazy. So I decided to put attackers together and I think it still came out with a good mix between the true forwards, the wide forwards/midfielders and the central midfielders. These attackers are some of the best players to play soccer in the last 15 years, let alone just in a single league.
Do I really need to explain why Sam Kerr is on the league’s All Decade Team? Kerr has been the strongest attacking force in the league over the last three years. Hat tricks, four goal games and back flips are all in Kerr’s toolbox and she seems to be able to bust out the incredible at will.
Every active player to make this 23 player roster is still in the NWSL except Kim Little. Little is still playing for Arsenal over in England. While her first World Cup surely didn’t go the way she wanted it to, Little can still show off her skills. Skills that made her one of the most entertaining players in the NWSL back in 2014 – 2016. Netting 32 goals in 63 games in a league as competitive as the NWSL is an incredible work rate. Little was part of a Reign midfield that dominated for two years. And while she never lifted the NWSL Championship trophy, she left deep marks on the league even three plus years later.
Lauren Holiday is the only retired player on this list. I don’t know if I am capable of putting into words how good she was. She spent large amounts of her national team career being consistently one of the very best players on the field while not playing in her best position. But in the NWSL for FC Kansas City? She was able to take the league by the horns and win back-to-back titles in 2014 and 2015 against a Seattle Reign team that dominated the regular season. Her skill at making others better while always being three steps ahead made her undeniable when she was on the field. And unforgettable when she finally stepped off of it for the last time.
Is there really anything to be said about Christine Sinclair that hasn’t already been written? Smart, strong on the ball, ruthless in the pursuit of her team finding a way to win, she is a player’s player. A captain’s captain. She has lead the Thorns since the day she reported to Portland, and I can’t imagine the team without her leading them out on the field. A double league champion who is just class all the way with her skill at finding a sliver of space or an open teammate.
There is no player in the NWSL as adept at being frustrating to watch one moment while delighting fans the next like Tobin Heath. Heath can put in a cross like few others this league has seen, and this league has seem some wonderful crossers. And her free kicks and set pieces aren’t bad either. Her opening goal in the 2013 NWSL Championship Game was one of the most beautifully executed free kicks that also happened to be the winning goal.
2015 was the year that much of the league met Crystal Dunn for the first time. She had an MVP and Golden Boot year in 2015. Her performance in the 2016 NWSL final alone (where her two goals weren’t enough to hold off the Western New York Flash) would have kept her in everyone’s mind. But since heading to England to play for Chelsea, returning stateside and joining the North Carolina Courage she has looked like one of the very best players the league has had with a ball at her feet. Dunn can play anywhere you ask her, and in some games has lined up in three or four different spots. This league has helped a lot of players find out who they really are on the field and Dunn is no exception.
In 2013 it was the Chicago Red Stars and the Seattle Reign. In 2014 it was the Portland Thorns. In 2015 the Houston Dash. 2016 the Western New York Flash and then finally the North Carolina Courage. Jessica McDonald has spent her career going around the league and has now found a home in North Carolina. Assists, goals, defending on set pieces because of her size, she can do it all. The last three seasons we’ve seen her come into her own under Paul Riley’s style of coaching and the league is frankly better for having McDonald as a super star in it.
Jess Fishlock is the one Welsh player you may have heard of who isn’t Gareth Bale. She is a nightmare for other teams to play with the fire of a dragon hitting you with each tackle. She was a big reason for the domination that Seattle had during the regular season in 2014 and 2015. And consistently one of the hardest players to play against in league history.
A lot of what I said about Fishlock also applies to McCall Zerboni. A tough player who tackles hard and has willed her team on to greatness. One of the very toughest players to have played in the NWSL. Since 2016 she has bloomed into one of the very top defensive midfielders the league has ever had.
Megan Rapinoe can ball. When healthy – and in the last few years there have been questions around that during her time with the Reign – she has helped the Reign become one of the most successful teams in the league. A skillful mix of creative and tough with flashes of brilliance that can knock the socks off of any defender, Rapinoe keeps making her mark on the league every time she steps on the pitch.
When it comes to the post season Amy Rodriguez is perhaps the most dangerous forward the NWSL has ever seen. And during the regular season she’s no lightweight either. With her unpredictable style on the ball, her lightning quick speed and her ability to find a way to get the ball in the back of the net more often than not, Rodriguez has gathered two NWSL titles in her time playing for FC Kansas City. And she is still scoring goals as she plays for Utah.
I am not sure that any other player has shown up in the NWSL and said “this is my league now” the way that Lindsey Horan has. When Horan came over from Paris Saint-Germain in 2016 to the Thorns there was a level of excitement. And in her roughly 70 matches for the Thorns she has shown she deserves to stand with the giants of the NWSL midfield already. Horan became the first NWSL MVP that was not also the Golden Boot winner after a spectacular 2018 season. Give her another decade in the league and she is going to jump even higher on lists like this.
While she’s never been to an NWSL final there have been few forwards in league history more deadly when the ball is at their feet than Christen Press. She demands respect from anywhere south of the midfield point as she can, and will, take shots from distance. Averaging about a goal every two games during her time in the NWSL is going to get defenders paying attention. And even still it is rare Press has a prolonged scoring drought.
For the starting XI I decided to go with the top point getters in each category. Thankfully it does make a pretty convincing lineup.
Though I will admit if I were to take a look at the full 23 I might have a slightly different group as my starting XI in order the make the best version of it.
What did I get right? What did I get wrong? Who did I forget to add to the 23? Who would you take out? Who might end up on the team for the next decade? Comment below with your thoughts.