Most Valuable Player: Crystal Dunn, Washington Spirit – Simply put Dunn was the most dangerous and explosive player in the league on a week-to-week basis. She routinely tore apart opposing defenses, never more than August 1 against the Dash when she scored a hat trick in a span of less than 20 minutes, a feat she completed before halftime. Dunn’s exclusion from the U.S. World Cup roster has been much talked about all season. Clearly the World Cup’s loss was the NWSL and the Washington Spirit’s gain.
ALSO CONSIDERED: Kim Little, Seatttle Reign FC; Amy LePeilbet, FC Kansas City
Defender of the Year: Lauren Barnes, Seattle Reign FC – Once the best defender on a poor Seattle Reign side, Barnes has emerged as one of the steadiest and best center backs in NWSL. She plays rock-solid defense and her service from the back has grown leaps and bounds during her three seasons in Seattle. One of the overlooked members on an excellent team, Barnes has been an integral part of making the Reign an incredibly difficult club to attack.
ALSO CONSIDERED: Amy LePeilbet, FC Kansas City
Rookie of the Year: Danielle Colaprico, Chicago Red Stars – It was a fantastic rookie class and a tough call, but the nod goes to Colaprico who stepped into a difficult role and helped keep the Red Stars midfield flowing almost immediately. She was more solid than flashy but, in the end, she was the best and most consistent rookie in a very strong class of 2015.
ALSO CONSIDERED: Megan Oyster, Washington Spirit; Samantha Mewis, Western New York Flash
Goalkeeper of the Year: Haley Kopmeyer, Seattle Reign FC — A bit of an odd choice seeing as she is not even the Reign’s first-choice keeper, but she played more than half the games, had 1.00 goals against average (better than Solo’s) and lost only one match out of 11. This was not a banner year for NWSL goalkeepers, but Kopmeyer distinguished herself enough to get the nod.
ALSO CONSIDERED: Brittany Cameron, Sky Blue FC; Nicole Barnhart, FC Kansas City
Coach of the Year: Rory Dames, Chicago Red Stars – Dames rode to the playoffs using three rookies extensively and balancing the loss of key players to the World Cup (yes, every coach dealt with that). The Red Stars were a difficult club to play against all season even as their back four and defense rotated players in and out. In the end, the first playoff berth was the culmination of a three-year plan Dames put in place after early developments left the Red Stars behind the eight ball heading into the league’s inaugural campaign.
ALSO CONSIDERED: Vlatko Andonovski, FC Kansas City; Laura Harvey, Seattle Reign FC
And my Best XI
I try my best to vote on players who would form an actual team. That does not necessarily mean they would all play well together, but having a right back, left back, and two center backs makes the team more legitimate. That’s my view anyway, and here are my selections.
Goalkeeper: Haley Kopmeyer, Seattle Reign FC – See above. If NWSL expands expect said new team to set its sights on Kopmeyer.
Defender: Lauren Barnes, Seattle Reign FC – See above. Second XI member a season ago deserves more this time around.
Defender: Amy LePeilbet, FC Kansas City – A lot happened in Kansas City this season but most agree that LePeilbet’s remarkable return to health and top form two years after major knee surgery went a long way toward getting the Blues back into the playoffs. LePeilbet used her speed and ability to read the game to hold things together in back even while Becky Sauerbrunn was away at the World Cup. One time national team regular could warrant another look going forward.
Defender: Leigh Ann Robinson, FC Kansas City – Like Barnes she is nothing but steady. Capable of playing either fullback position, Robinson was on the right side for every minute of every match, helping Kansas City to a 1.00 goals against for the season. She likes to perch herself high as well, which puts pressure on her opposite left back.
Defender: Stephanie Cox, Seattle Reign FC – With apologies to aggressive rookies Jaelene Hinkle and Arin Gilliland and U.S. starter Meghan Klingenberg, Cox was the best and most consistent left back in NWSL. She does not do much to call attention to herself but that works both ways as she is hardly ever the culprit on defensive breakdowns.
Midfielder: Jessica Fishlock, Seattle Reign FC – If a soccer pitch were split into 64 squares like a chess board, it is a fair bet that no NWSL player would make an impact on more of those 64 spaces than Fishlock. Always a relentless ball-winner, the Welsh midfielder has become world class in all phases of the game. Whether snuffing out an opponent’s attack or spearheading the Reign’s, Fishlock is almost always in the middle of things for the two-time Shield winners.
Midfielder: Kim Little, Seattle Reign FC – Little’s goal production dropped in 2015 when she scored 10 goals in 20 matches after netting 16 in 23 matches in 2014. Her effectiveness did not drop even a little. No player in NWSL does more with possession than Little, who almost always leaves her team in a better position after giving up the ball than it was in when she received it. And in case anyone forgot her hat trick against the Dash—goal No. 3 in particular—proved she can still find the back of the net when called on.
Midfielder: Allie Long, Portland Thorns FC – The consistent presence on a team that had little of it. Has a knack for being in the right place at the right time and her play did not drop off when the better players in the league returned. (I got killed for this pick in 2014 and fully expect it to be greeted with similar vitriol in 2015.)
Forward: Crystal Dunn, Washington Spirit – See above. A force to be reckoned with game in and game out, from minute 1 to minute 90.
Forward: Christen Press, Chicago Red Stars – I left most of the World Cup players off the list since few of them played enough to make a Best XI type of impact. But Press bagged 10 goals in 11 matches, three of which were game-winners, and added two assists. Among her game-winners was a pivotal, injury-time blast that beat Hope Solo and gave the Red Stars a key, early-season victory over the Reign.
Forward: Beverly Yanez, Seattle Reign FC – Yanez was given added responsibility and proved she can score on an elite level by carrying the Reign offense through the early part of the season. A late injury cost her a chance to reach double figures in goals. Not bad for a player who was a spare midfielder for the Washington Freedom at the start of the decade.
And for some unofficial awards…
Most Improved: Lindsi Cutshall, Sky Blue FC – First-round pick in 2013 took a few years to bloom, partially due to injuries, but has finally come of age as a starting NWSL defender.
Comeback Player: Estelle Johnson, Washington Spirit – When Johnson begged out of the 2014 season she thought soccer was over for good. But the thirst to win a championship after falling short in the final twice in WPS combined with a favorable setup in Washington where she was able to balance soccer with her other business interests. Between the lines she stepped in to a central defense role and held it down for the season helping the Spirit back into the playoffs.
Most Improved, Part II: Michelle Betos, Portland Thorns FC – In 2013 she was in over her head as Hope Solo’s deputy in Seattle. Two years later and she was essentially beating out Nadine Angerer for playing time in Portland.Moment of the Year I: Betos equalizes – Not only can Betos keep goal, she can also score. She set the women’s soccer world alight when she snuck into the FC Kansas City penalty area and headed home Allie Long’s corner kick for the 1-1 draw at home.
Moment of the Year II: Lloyd rips game-winner – In Carli Lloyd’s first match in Houston following the World Cup she took matters into her own hands by scoring a sensational game-winner in the 87th minute to give the Dash a 3-2 win. The goal came two minutes after FC Kansas City had equalized.
Moment of the Year III: Fishlock saves unbeaten run at Memorial – The Reign were the Shield winners meaning they essentially had nothing to play for. Sky Blue took advantage early going ahead in the opening minutes and leading later in a match than any opponent ever had at Memorial Stadium. But the Reign fought back, ultimately equalizing through Jessica Fishlock as rain drenched the Moda Pitch in the 90th minute.
Last week’s NWSL attendance figures:
Sky Blue FC (Wednesday): 1,620
Western New York Flash (Friday): 4,147 (season high)
Washington Spirit (Saturday): 5,708 (club record)
Chicago Red Stars (Sunday): 5,623 (Toyota Park)
NWSL ATTENDANCE AVG | SINCE WWC
1. Portland Thorns FC — 15,639 | 18,443
2. Houston Dash — 6,413 | 8,408
3. Chicago Red Stars — 4,210 | 3,363
4. Washington Spirit — 4,087 | 5,148
5. Seattle Reign FC — 4,060 | 5,465
6. FC Kansas City — 3,091 | 2,888
7. Boston Breakers — 2,863 | 3,598
8. Western New York Flash — 2,860 | 3,584
9. Sky Blue FC — 2,189 | 3,080
— At least two NWSL coaches are in flux. Tom Durkin told The Equalizer last week that both he and the team were still decompressing from the season and that a decision would be made on his future this week at the earliest. In Portland, Paul Riley went public recently about the drawbacks of coaching on the opposite coach from his family, and general manager Gavin Wilkinson said Tuesday the coach is out of contract and that a decision is pending. Wilkinson said he hoped to have an answer in three to four weeks.
— These nine players were on the field every minute of the 2015 regular season. That’s 1,800 in all: Kassey Kallman and Mollie Pathman (Breakers); Amy LePeilbet and Leigh Ann Robinson (Kansas City); Lauren Barnes and Stephanie Cox (Reign); Megan Oyster (Spirit); Becky Edwards and Jaelene Hinkle (Flash). No players from the Red Stars, Dash, Thorns, or Sky Blue played every minute.
— Jen Buczkowski did not play every minute either but she is the only player to play and start all 66 regular season matches since NWSL was launched. Buczkowski has also played in all three of FC Kansas City’s playoff games. They have another one this Sunday.
— There has still been no definitive word on the extent of the injury suffered by Christine Sinclair when she taken down by Brittany Cameron on August 22. Thorns general manager Wilkinson said the club hoped to keep Sinclair in market through the offseason but the possibility remains she will be turned over to recover under the supervision on Canadian national team doctors.
— I believe beyond the shadow of a doubt that Becky Sauerbrunn is the best defender in the world. It just seemed like playing such a limited schedule made others more worthy of Best XI status. Including Christen Press might run counter to that logic, but Press just had a direct impact on so many matches that it was too difficult to leave her off.
— Amy Rodriguez, Hope Solo, and Megan Rapinoe are also among U.S. players who were outstanding in NWSL but who in my opinion did not warrant Best XI standing.
— Look for an increase back to a 24-match schedule, possibly as early as 2016.
— My early thoughts on the weekend are that both matches are up for grabs. The Reign are unbeaten at Memorial Stadium but the Spirit came tantalizingly close in the semifinal last year. This year the Spirit are bringing a better team and will also have the most dangerous player on the pitch, Crystal Dunn. The Midwest Melee has produced several entertaining matches over the years. The Red Stars can be a bit of a foil to FC Kansas City’s possession system so look for that one to be decided right in the middle of the park.
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