Here is what my 2013 NWSL Awards ballot looked like. Tweet me any feedback or disagreements @thedanlauletta:
MVP – Abby Wambach, Western New York Flash: Wambach may not have had the best season but in a close call I judged her to be the most valuable to her team. She scored a bunch of crucial goals (11 total, with 8 assists) early in the season when the Flash were struggling. She scored in six straight appearances and had a goal or assist in eight straight. In all, Wambach’s name made it on the scoresheet in 13 of 19 games she played in. And her unrelenting effort became a trademark for a club that wound up finishing first overall.
Also considered: Lauren Holiday, probably the best player in the league and most likely winner here, was a dominant force in midfield for FC Kansas City. Teammate Desiree Scott plays the far less glamorous defensive midfield position but she changed practically every game with her tactical awareness and uncanny ability to win tackles in key spots on the field.
Coach of the Year – Vlatko Andonovski, FC Kansas City: The soccer community at large chuckled when FC Kansas City hired Andonovski. Turns out the Macedonian-born former indoor star had a plan about how to build a team from scratch. Better than that he executed it to near perfection, putting together a team that played the most attractive soccer in NWSL and helping make Kansas City a destination of choice for women’s pro players.
Also considered: Aaran Lines took a bunch of defenders who had either played different positions or lacked top flight experience, threw a rookie goalkeeper behind them, and all they did was help the Flash win the league and put Lines in position to win a fourth straight title in four different leagues. Jim Gabarra made some clever acquisitions and had Sky Blue pacing the league until a spate of injuries caught up with them.
Goalkeeper of the Year – Karina LeBlanc, Portland Thorns FC: Thought of as one of the weak links on the Thorns at the start of the season, LeBlanc spent the summer dispelling the notion she was on the wrong side of the hill. While the midfield sputtered and the team occasionally struggled to score, LeBlanc frequently kept them in matches and bailed her defense out of several mistake. If NWSL is a guide, LeBlanc figures to be on the verge of reclaiming the top spot for Canada.
Also considered: Adrianna Franch showed signs of being a future star and wound up leading the league in goals against average. At times, especially early, she was undone by positional errors. Nicole Barnhart was steady or better most of the season but had some issues defending the near post late in matches – it burned her twice, costing the club four points.
Rookie of the Year – Erika Tymrak, FC Kansas City: The Florida product started out on the bench but so impressed the coaches stepping in for injured and absent players that she started the final 16 games of the season and prompted the club to make a trade to accommodate her as a fixture in the lineup. Her ball skills, vision, and finishing touch make Tymrak a virtual shoe-in to be called into U.S. national team camp.
Also considered: Franch started every game for the Flash and excelled behind a makeshift back four. Also got better as the season progressed. Sydney Leroux scored 11 goals and had the league’s first hat trick despite being invisible for lengthy stretches. Yes she’s a rookie even though her last collegiate season was 2011. Christine Nairn was shuttled all over the field but continued to get better, a draft steal at No. 8 for the Reign. Kathryn Williamson was the calming influence in back for the Thorns.
Defender of the Year – Becky Sauerbrunn, FC Kansas City: Saurbrunn was a rock in the middle of the defense for FC Kansas City. Not only did she organize a solid defensive unit she got forward more often and more effectively than just about any center back in WPS.
Also considered: Christie Rampone continues to shine at age 38 and while she occasionally showed signs of her age she could most often be seen shadowing the likes of Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux, among others. Leigh Ann Robinson was probably the best left back in NWSL until a formation shakeup moved her to right back – where she was probably the best right back in NWSL.
Goalkeeper – Karina LeBlanc, Portland Thorns FC
Defender – Becky Sauerbrunn, FC Kansas City
Defender – Christie Rampone, Sky Blue FC
Defender – Leigh Ann Robinson, FC Kansas City
Defender – Brittany Taylor, Western New York Flash – Taylor had not played central defense since college but she teamed up with Estelle Johnson and helped make what was supposed to be a Flash weakness into a strength. She also got forward effectively and her long ball—whether on set pieces or in the run of play—developed into a suitable attacking weapon.
Midfielder – Desiree Scott, FC Kansas City
Midfielder – Jen Buczkowski, FC Kansas City – Scott’s defensive midfield partner played every minute and did so with nearly unblemished effectiveness. Unheralded D-mid is perhaps the most under-appreciated player in the league.
Midfielder – Lori Chalupny, Chicago Red Stars – Creative whiz not only survived but thrived on a Red Stars team that often did not have the players to support her attacking ways. Chalupny has an excellent combination of creating and finishing abilities and had 5 goals and 4 assists before a reckless tackle by Tobin Heath ended her season.
Midfielder – Diana Matheson, Washington Spirit – Another who thrived on a team often beaten up by injury to the point of not being able to support her. One of the smallest players in NWSL, Matheson was nonetheless a dominant force on the right side of the Spirit attack despite often being the entire focus of opposing defenses.
Midfielder – Lauren Holiday, FC Kansas City
Forward – Abby Wambach, Western New York Flash
Also considered: Erika Tymrak was outstanding but came of age too late in the season. Lisa De Vanna was MVP of the 1st half of the season but a nagging hamstring injury rendered her next to useless the last month and change. Megan Rapinoe was outstanding after arriving from Lyon. Franch may have been the league’s best keeper over the last month. Estelle Johnson was a worthy central defense partner for Brittany Taylor. Alex Morgan’s strong season was sometimes overshadowed by a run of frivolous yellow cards and body language that suggested she was more than a little frustrated.
Where are the goals coming from?
All eight teams scored on the season’s final weekend, totaling 11 goals to bring the final season total to 238. That’s a healthy 2.70 goals per game. The U.S. allocated players led the way, followed by the league’s free agent signings. The allocated goals were not evenly distributed, though. Sky Blue FC and the Red Stars did not get a single goal from a U.S. allocation and the Spirit got exactly two. That leaves 61 split among the other five clubs. Here are the final totals with Week 19 totals in parenthesis:
Allocated players – 112 (5)*
United States – 63 (2)*; Canada – 31 (3)* ; Mexico – 18
College Draft – 22 (2)
Free Agent – 52 (1) *
Supplemental Draft – 24 (2)
Discovery et al. 23 (1)
Own Goals – 5
*-Includes goals scored by players who have joined other teams since originally joining the league
Note: Free Agent refers to any player signed during the free agent window immediately following the college draft; Discovery includes any player acquired through means not included in any other category
— Playoff times are set. The Thorns and FC Kansas City played the first NWSL match and now they will play the first NWSL playoff match, Saturday at 2 p.m. EDT at Verizon Wireless Field. At 8 p.m. EDT the Flash will host Sky Blue FC. Both games will be aired on Fox Sports 2. The winners meet in the final a week later with the higher seed hosting.
— Leigh Ann Robinson took a right knee injury early in FC Kansas City’s loss to the Red Stars and came off the field for the first time all season. That left teammate Jen Buczkowski plus Estelle Johnson (WNY) and CoCo Goodson (Sky Blue) as the only members of the perfect attendance club for 2013. All three are on playoff teams so they will be looking for another 180 minutes to finish the job.
— Sky Blue forward Kelley O’Hara underwent reconstructive ankle surgery last week and will be out 4-6 months. In a release sent by the club O’Hara said, “Unfortunately I’ve come to a point where I’ve exhausted all the treatment and rehab options to get my ankle totally fit and ready to play. At this point surgery is the best option to come back one hundred percent for the next NWSL season and for the national team.” The tentative recovery schedule should have O’Hara in line to be fit and ready for the start of the 2014 league season.
— Taryn Hemmings also underwent surgery last week after tearing her left ACL on July 14. Hemmings had the surgery in Colorado, where she will begin rehab. Recovery is estimated at 6-7 months which makes Hemmings a question mark for the start of 2014.
— The two hot-button issues at the dawn of the off-season are expansion and allocations. The Equalizer’s Caitlin Murray reports on the uneasy situation concerning Mexico’s participation in 2014 and beyond.
— Coolest moment of the season? How about Jim Gabarra putting third-string keeper Ashley Baker in the 89th minute of a 5-1 game and Baker promptly stopping a Lianne Sanderson penalty kick.
— Goal of the year? Lauren Cheney had a few candidates, then she got married and became Lauren Holiday and picked up a few more. But none of them can top Lisa De Vanna’s bicycle kick June 1 against the Breakers. (This was the same match where Baker saved Sanderson’s penalty.)
— Two really good players that have yet to be mentioned in this column: Angela Salem and Julianne Sitch.
— And finally, Karina LeBlanc’s Thorns finished 3rd despite being level on points with the Top 2. It cost LeBlanc a unique soccer triple. She had previously been the first choice keeper for teams that won the regular season in both WUSA (2003 Boston Breakers) and WPS (Los Angeles Sol). Neither of those won a playoff match so maybe this year’s Thorns will change LeBlanc’s luck.