In the conclusion of my team-by-team awards series, I took a look at each team’s Most Valuable Player over the course of 2017. This is not necessarily the purely best player on the team but the one with the biggest impact to help them toward whatever success they achieved. Whether it’s scoring goals, keeping the other team from doing so, rising in leadership, or simple domination, there are always players who make their teammates better, whose contributions go beyond the box scores. I did this at the halfway point of the season as well, and it’s interesting to see those that changed, whether due to injury, a drop-off in form, or the rise of another.
Salem has been nothing short of a stalwart in Boston’s midfield this year. By far the most consistent presence on the team, she held it down in front of what was often a disorganized and makeshift backline due to injuries. The underrated defensive midfielder was something of a brick wall against opposing teams and helped launch attacks in transition, often with a killer through ball. Salem’s veteran presence stood out on what was a fairly young team with quite a few new faces. She was also this season’s Ironwoman for Boston with 2117 minutes played.
Runner up: Adriana Leon
Leon drove Boston’s attack even when they had little offense to speak of, leading the team with chances created. She had six goals and six assists.
CHICAGO RED STARS
Moving Ertz from centerback to midfield is the key that unlocked Chicago’s success this year. She’s been so good in the role, she convinced Jill Ellis to play a proper defensive midfielder on the USWNT for the first time in years. For a time, Ertz was actually Chicago’s leading scorer, with four goals, and not just on set pieces. She’s a solid, gritty ball winner who just bulldozes through opposition and has perfected the balance of starting and pushing into an attack with dropping back to provide relief for the backline. Ertz also played provider with three assists and was named to the NWSL Team of the Month in April and July.
Runner up: Christen Press
Press IS Chicago’s attack, her 11 goals nearly twice the next highest in Chicago, and the dropoff is incredibly noticeable on the rare occasion she’s not on the pitch. She has also significantly improved her role as a creator, with her four assists this season totaling more than all previous NWSL seasons put together. Press was named to the May NWSL Team of the Month.
FC KANSAS CITY
LaBonta has been a revelation for FCKC this year, grabbing a starting spot with both hands and making it clear it was hers to lose. She fits right in with the relentlessly fast and aggressive play of Shea Groom and Sydney Leroux above her, making for a strong counterattack. LaBonta pulls strings in a way that no one at FCKC has since Lauren Holiday retired, albeit in an entirely different style. She has the highest percentage of successful tackles of any midfielder on FCKC, and tallied two goals and two assists.
Runner up: Shea Groom
Groom really came into her form in the latter part of the season, and with that she brought FCKC some late success, although not enough to make the playoffs. A perennial thorn in the side of any opposing team, Groom has a tenacious style quite unlike any other. With five goals and six assists, Groom was by far the biggest provider on the team.
The midfielder-turned-defender was the most consistent piece of an ever-changing Houston backline and could be found all over the pitch, putting out fires. I already named her Houston’s Defender of the Year, but her importance to the team goes beyond that. Brooks stepped into both the captain’s armband and leadership role vacated by Kealia Ohai and Carli Lloyd and was one of the Dash’s most vocal leaders during a turbulent season, winning the team’s Ironwoman award with 2160 minutes played. Brooks had one goal and two assists for the year and was named to the July NWSL Team of the Month.
Runner up: Jane Campbell
My pick for Houston’s Rookie of the Year, the goalkeeper had big shoes to fill when she took Lydia Williams’ spot, and save for the occasional mistake as she matured, Campbell did wonderfully, keeping Houston in games they otherwise would have been blown out in.
NORTH CAROLINA COURAGE
One could flip-flop Mewis and Zerboni, and I wouldn’t have a problem with it. What gives Mewis the edge to me is Zerboni’s tendency to foul too often. They work wonderfully together in one of the league’s best midfields and a formidable pair for any team to attempt to play past. Mewis’ abilities pushing forward have grown tremendously and with both a wicked long range shot and a great eye for that initial pass to set up a goal-scoring opportunity, she plays a key role in North Carolina’s offense. She notched six goals and three assists on the year and had the highest percentage of duels won among field players on the Courage. Mewis was named to the NWSL Team of the Month in April, June, and August
Runner up: McCall Zerboni
In what was probably her best professional season in the NWSL yet, Zerboni has become a true midfield enforcer. She goes into tackles without flinching and is an aggressive ball-winner. She had three goals and one assist. Zerboni was named to the July NWSL Team of the Month
In a season that should have her as a potential MVP candidate, Marta’s importance to Orlando is most valuable not in the chances she creates, the assists she collects, or the goals she scores, but in the fact that she’s made nearly everyone on the team better. Her partnership with Alex Morgan is one of the best attacking duos in the league, her chemistry with Camila is undeniable, and it’s no coincidence players like Chioma Ubogagu and Jasmyne Spemcer have risen to new levels. She demands the highest expectations not only of herself but of everyone around her. What makes Marta Marta is what she does off the ball, often the simplest of moves to get herself into a dangerous position or stretch a defense. She led the league in chances created, by far, and her thirteen goals put her in second place in the league and first on the Pride. She also had the most assists on the team with six. Marta was named to the NWSL Team of the Month in June, July, and August and Player of the Month for September.
Runner up: Alex Morgan
Morgan is easily in the best form of her career since 2012. Her return is really what kicked off Orlando’s playoff run, as she scores nearly at will these days, with nine goals and four assists. She also had the highest percentage of successful tackles on the team. Morgan was Player of the Month in August and named to the August NWSL Team of the Month
A former forward, Horan has become a true box to box midfielder in her second season with the Thorns. Floating in between Amandine Henry at holding midfielder and Christine Sinclair at attacking midfielder, Horan makes things happen. The biggest improvement in her game is her defensive work. She has effectively marked players like Carli Lloyd almost completely out of games and has become adept at picking pockets and forcing turnovers. Horan had the second-highest number of passes completed in the league. She tallied four goals and two assists. Horan was named to the August NWSL Team of the Month
Runner up: the backline
I would be remiss not to mention Portland’s defense, statistically the best in the league. They work seamlessly as a unit, and Portland would not have nearly the success without all of the members, including those like Celeste Boureille who filled in when others were injured. The defense helped Adrianna Franch to 11 clean sheets.
This season’s assist queen with nine, Kawasumi was probably involved in more Seattle goals than not. She has a tremendous eye for through balls and can set up a teammate on a dime, as she did with Megan Rapinoe frequently. Kawasumi also has some of the best off the ball movement in the league, and her technical skill on the ball adds a special flavor to Seattle’s offense. It’s a talent that’s all too rare in the NWSL, making it a pleasure to watch her do her thing. Seattle fell just short of the playoffs once again this year, but without Kawasumi creating chances left and right (second most in the league), they would have a much steeper hill to climb. Her 1917 minutes played give her the team’s Ironwoman award. She scored six goals and had the highest passing accuracy of any forward on the team. Kawasumi was named to the May NWSL Team of the Month.
Runner up: Megan Rapinoe
It’s a shame that Rapinoe’s season had the minor hiccup it did with her injury because prior to that she was in the most consistent form of her career and likely would have continued to challenge Sam Kerr for the NWSL Golden Boot. As it was, she finished third with 12 goals (and one assist). She also had the highest percentage of duels won among the forwards on the team. Rapinoe was Player of the Month in July and was named to the NWSL Team of the Month in June and July
SKY BLUE FC
Without a doubt the easiest choice on this list, Kerr is also the frontrunner for league MVP. Setting the league records for most goals scored both in one game and in a season, she also became the NWSL’s all-time leading goalscorer as well as the first player to score multiple hat tricks in a season. She had five game-winning goals, scored against eight of the nine opposing teams, and was responsible for over 40 percent of Sky Blue’s goals this season. Oh yeah, and she was awarded the NWSL Golden Boot. To top it off, Kerr also added four assists to her name. Even that wasn’t enough to overcome Sky Blue’s awful defense, but without her, they would easily have sunk to the bottom. She pounces all over errant passes, capitalizes on every goalkeeper mistake, can run at defenses or play with her back to goal, and scores both on the ground and in the air, with her feet and with her head. The NWSL has never seen a player have a season like Kerr’s and it has been a pure joy to watch. Kerr was Player of the Month in May and June and was named to the NWSL Team of the Month in May, June, and August
Runner up: Kelley O’Hara
Originally intended to play up top this year, O’Hara was quickly dropped back into defense in order to provide some organization to a struggling backline. She was easily their best defender, and she also contributed on the other end, demonstrating strong chemistry with Kerr.
The only rookie on my list, not counting Jane Campbell as Houston’s runner up, Dougherty-Howard should be a contender for Rookie of the Year. She proved a draft pick is just a number, surpassing many higher picks with both her playing time and her contributions to her team. The midfielder has shown an exceptional eye and a superb touch to place passes exactly where her teammate will be, which is a rarity not only among young players but among many professionals. With Dougherty-Howard to start an attack, Mallory Pugh to set up the chance, and Cheyna Williams to finish it, the Spirit have an excellent young core around which to build. She led the team in fouls won and notched one goal and one assist.
Runner up: Estelle Johnson
Returning to outside back for the first time in years, Johnson was hands down the Spirit’s best defender in a very tough season. She’s an unforgiving defender who is solid 1v1 and also notched her first two NWSL goals. She also easily had the highest percentage of duels won on the team. Johnson was named to the NWSL Team of the Month in April and June