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NWSL Week in Review: With Season Over, Who Gets Honored?

Amanda Duffy presents the 2017 NWSL Shield to NC Courage Captain Abby Erceg. (Photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

And so we’ve come to the end of the road of a memorable 2017 NWSL season that saw its ups and downs, both on and off the field. There are many, many things to improve on, but the general direction of momentum has to be considered positive, especially given the recent history of professional women’s soccer in this country.

There are a couple of franchises that are struggling, but there are also people reaching out about possibly acquiring them. Salaries are way too low, but at least growing. While not perfect, the NWSL has a national television deal and a partner that is willing to promote it (even if we might question their methods of doing so).

The NWSL will announce its 2017 awards starting this week, and I figured this would be a good chance to tell you what I saw over the course of the campaign. This is only one person’s view, of course, but here’s who I think deserves to get honored:

COACH OF YEAR: 1) Tom Sermanni, Orlando – Took a team that seemed headed for bottom half of the table and turned them into the hottest NWSL squad at the end of the season (and easily in the playoffs). Alex Morgan had something to do with that, but still a fantastic job.

2) Paul Riley, North Carolina – Has put in a system and found the players to make it work to win the NWSL Shield.

3) Mark Parsons, Portland – Had more adversity that you might have noticed on way to second place finish.

ROOKIE OF YEAR: 1) Ashley Hatch, North Carolina – She did not start every week and was on a good team, but clearly made it better when she was on the field and was a key part in winning the NWSL Shield.

2) Mallory Pugh, Washington – When Pugh is at her best (as she was Saturday), she has the potential to dominate games, and there is no other rookie that can reach that level. But didn’t show it quite enough.

3) Meggie Dougherty Howard, Washington – Had the most consistent season of any rookie, and will be interesting to see how Spirit build for 2018.

GOALKEEPER OF YEAR: 1) Kailen Sheridan, Sky Blue – Yes, Sky Blue gave up an obscene amount of goals, but Sheridan was spectacular for most of the season in front of perhaps the worst defense in American women’s soccer history.

2) Adrianna Franch, Portland – Franch had a very good defense in front of her, but after a little shakiness early (mostly with her feet), she had a quality season that went a bit unnoticed.

3) Alyssa Naeher, Chicago – She had more mistakes than you would expect from the USWNT No. 1, but still belongs on this list.

DEFENDER OF THE YEAR: 1) Casey Short, Chicago – Week in and week out, Short is just extremely consistent in what she does in perhaps the toughest position to play in soccer, outside back. Rarely do you see her get beat.

2) Emily Sonnett, Portland – There were a couple of questionable moments early, but she might have been able to beat out Short in the second half of the season, and a return to the national team might be imminent.

3) Abby Dahlkemper, North Carolina – It’s easy to forget how shaky the Courage’s defense was last season, and – led by Dahlkemper – they were not this season.

MVP: 1) Sam Kerr, Sky Blue – Even with Sky Blue finishing a distant sixth, this is the easiest call to make here. Kerr had a season for the ages, and it was a joy to watch.

2) Sam Mewis, North Carolina – Mewis was the dominant force (with plenty of help, granted) on the league’s best team and looks to be only getting better.

3) Marta, Orlando – Marta just doing her thing. What was most remarkable about her is her weekly work-rate. It shouldn’t be, I guess, but still a marvel after all these years.

BEST XI: Sheridan; Short, Sonnett, Dahlkemper, Taylor Smith; Sam Mewis, Julie Ertz, Megan Rapinoe; Kerr, Marta, Hayley Raso.

SECOND XI: Franch; Emily Menges, Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Erceg, Steph Catley; Lindsey Horan, Jess Fishlock, Sofia Huerta, McCall Zerboni; Alex Morgan, Shea Groom,

What else did we learn in a weekend where is was actually chilly in the Northeast? No hydration breaks or anything.

SATURDAY

Portland 3:1 Chicago (recap)

What Went Down: As a competitor, you can understand Christen Press being upset about not starting in this match, but as one of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever talked to, she has to understand the nuances of what was at stake. Rory Dames – in my mind correctly – didn’t really care which opponent he played next week, so he set all his national team players (Press, Julie Ertz, Sofia Huerta, Casey Short, Alyssa Naeher) to give them a rest at the end of a long season. If there was anything to play for, I might have thought differently, but I have no problem with what Dames did. As it was, the Red Stars lost Sam Johnson to a head injury, which could be huge next weekend.

The result with those players out was predictable. Parsons – with a much deeper squad – rested a few players as well (making all three subs at halftime, including a banged up Hayley Raso), and it will be interesting to see how he handles Tobin Heath next week. It’s a little bit of a shame that in front of 21,000+ fans (?!?) and national television, so many stars didn’t go 90 minutes, but the playoffs start next week.

Player of the Game: Lindsey Horan – Horan’s recent rise in form has carried over to the national team, and (as I’ve said before) is perhaps the biggest reason (along with Raso) in the Thorns ascent in the standings. They will need her to be at her best against a stellar Orlando midfield next week as well.

Under the Radar: Nadia Nadim – Nadim will not return to NWSL in 2018, moving to Manchester City, and Portland has some choices to replace her. But that does mean she won’t be missed, and she had another solid outing here.

Inside the Numbers: 10 – Number of home wins for the Thorns this season, finishing at 10-1-1. They will need the home crowd behind them to take down red-hot Orlando next weekend.

Up next: Portland – vs. Orlando (Sat.); Chicago – at North Carolina (Sun.)

Washington 2:3 Seattle

What Went Down: If you didn’t know Jess Fishlock and Laura Harvey, you might be surprised at a team with absolutely nothing to play for on the other side of the country making a desperate comeback in their final game of the season. But down 2-0 and getting outplayed by the team at the bottom of the NWSL table midway through the second half, Seattle got mad, particularly Fishlock, who nearly beat her first goal into the net to get it back to the middle of the field to restart the game and the eventual complete Seattle comeback.

For the Spirit, they have some pieces to build around and should be able to add Andi Sullivan to that mix now, but there are still plenty of questions to be asked about their future. They will hope that their team will at least start next season healthy, but who will be back? I guess every team faces that question, though.

Player of the Game: Jess Fishlock – Fishlock recently scored for Wales in Kazakhstan, among other things she’s done this season. She hasn’t had her best campaign in 2017, but her workrate and commitment are such a pleasure to watch week in and week out, and I definitely salute her for it.

Under the Radar: Mallory Pugh – Obviously it wasn’t really under the radar, but her two goals (one of which she made Seattle’s defense look like it was standing still) made her the leading scorer for the Spirit this season. If Washington can improve enough, she might be among the MVP candidates to start 2018.

Inside the Numbers: 3,780 – Not a terrible attendance number for the final game of the season for the bottom team in the table. Some work to do behind the scenes there, but things are looking much better than they were at this time last year.

Up next: Washington – Season Over; Seattle – Season Over

Boston 3:4 Sky Blue (recap)

What Went Down: It may be little noted nor long remembered by people who aren’t regular watchers of NWSL, but what an amazing season Sky Blue had, and how fun were they each and every week? Of course, much of it was due to an historically poor defense that will have to be completely overhauled in the offseason, but Sam Kerr’s season is much, much too great to be summed up here. We just hope it won’t be lost to the ages.

For the Breakers, Matt Beard will return, but he has a lot of personnel decisions to make. Obviously, a healthy Rose Lavelle is imperative, but deciding whether his defense is good enough may prove to be difficult as well.

Player of the Game: Natasha Dowie – Dowie began the season leading the line for what looked like an improved Breakers’ offense, but was on the bench by the middle of the campaign. Now she finished it by scoring twice in the season finale. That might sum up the issues in Boston both current and future.

Under the Radar: Kelley O’Hara – I didn’t include her in my Top XI teams, but certainly could have. Sky Blue was much, much better when she played, even if they had to play her on defense to try to get some kind of organization back there.

Inside the Numbers: 17 – Number of goals Sam Kerr scored this season, a new league record. And she certainly earned it, not getting a whole lot of help on many of those goals. We’ll see how long it stands.

Up next: Boston – Season Over; Sky Blue – Season Over

North Carolina 2:3 Orlando (recap)

What Went Down: Paul Riley rested people in this match as well, perfectly understandable because they had wrapped up the NWSL Shield. This doesn’t mean the NWSL Shield is worthless, though, as Riley somewhat callously inferred last week, which is really a shame for his own supporters, 7,000 of which showed up to help claim the award on Saturday. I’m not one that believes too much in momentum, so I would not be terribly worried going forward with this result.

In fact, I want no part of Orlando right now, who seems to have figured everything out at the right time (although it might have lost Camila to injury). Alanna Kennedy has been outstanding of late, while Alex Morgan (who took a beating in this match) and Marta are always going to be dangerous, even against a stout Portland defense. It’s hard to think that Lifetime and the league could do better than that matchup for a semifinal next weekend.

Player of the Game: Alanna Kennedy – She scored an amazing winning goal, but she’s been much more than that for the Pride this season, and like O’Hara, could argue vehemently about a spot in an NWSL Top XI team. She’s also one of the players that appears to make Australia one of the favorites in the 2019 World Cup.

Under the Radar: Lynn Williams – North Carolina-Chicago is also a very good tactical matchup, as Williams will have to deal with the likes of Casey Short and company. Orlando had all kinds of trouble with her speed (who doesn’t?), but are the Red Stars a lot better equipped to deal?

Inside the Numbers: 2 – Points the Courage won the NWSL Shield by over Portland, so it wasn’t really a runaway by any stretch, but the hardware is theirs nonetheless.

Up next: North Carolina – vs. Chicago (Sun.); Orlando – at Portland (Sat.)

SUNDAY

Kansas City 1:1 Houston (recap)

What Went Down: I honestly thought the Dash might lose 7-0 after they got scored on early in conjunction with their complete capitulation at home on Wednesday against North Carolina. But, although Jane Campbell needed to make a few saves at the end, you could make a case that Houston deserved three points. At full strength and in top form, a team with Carli Lloyd, Kealia Ohai, Janine Beckie, Kristie Mewis, Andressinha, and Campbell should be a playoff contender. But they’ll need a defense and maybe a good head coach/sports psychologist between now and 2018 to make all that work. Any volunteers?

FCKC played without Becky Sauerbrunn and it showed a bit in the back. Aside from the questions of where the team will be, there are a few personnel questions to speak of, but things look a lot better for Kansas City than they did a couple months ago.

Player of the Game: Kristie Mewis – Mewis has these outings from time to time, which is what makes it frustrating that she can’t be more consistent. Her delivery was spectacular and her vision and ability to make a difference is what got her in the USWNT picture. Might she finally find a home in Houston?

Under the Radar: Jane Campbell – Even though it was handled horribly at the beginning of the season, I think it was the right move to eventually go to Campbell as the starting goalkeeper this season. I expect Campbell to only get better in 2018, and if her and Kailen Sheridan can import some defenders (or someone to shape the current defenses), both could be in the playoffs soon.

Inside the Numbers: 102 – Streak of sellouts for Sporting Kansas City after another one against Vancouver Saturday night. FCKC followed up a crowd of 938 with one of 1,312 for the season finale. We shall see what happens.

Up next: Kansas City – Season Over; Houston – Season Over

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