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2022 NWSL Year in Review: A season of incredible performances

Photo: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 National Women’s Soccer League season was bookended by a potential work stoppage ahead of preseason — before the eventual ratification of a historic, first collective bargaining agreement — and the release of the joint investigation into systemic abuse at the end of the year. Along the way was the Yates Report and three coaches being swept aside for issues related to the investigations.

On the field, the league’s 10th season provided some unforgettable moments of magic on the pitch. In the end, two expansion teams shined a bright light on the NWSL and the three most decorated franchises each went home with a trophy.

As we look back on the year that was, we focus on some of the incredible action that happened on the field. These are the moments that we will remember.


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Angel City, San Diego set new standards

Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC could not have gone about the process of franchise-building any differently.

The Los Angeles side pounded their chests and established a recognizable brand even before kicking a ball. They went for the splashy signings and announced early in the campaign that no players would be traded without requesting a move off the squad.

The Wave kept a far lower profile, building the club in a more methodic manner on and off the pitch. They did trade for United States forward Alex Morgan and dipped into the international market, but in the end leaned heavily on draft picks to build the roster.

Off the field, Angel City was spectacular. They elected to play Challenge Cup home matches at an alternate venue, saving the grand opening at Banc of California Stadium for the regular-season opener on April 29. In front of a raucous, sold-out crowd of 22,000 that included many A-list celebrities, Angel City instantly redefined the upper echelon for the game-day experience, and knocked off the North Carolina Courage, 2-1 in the process. The match was televised on CBS Sports Network. Angel City sold out two other matches and knocked Portland Thorns FC out of their heretofore unchallenged top rung in the attendance battle.

Angel City did well for themselves on the pitch as well. They surprised the Washington Spirit at Audi Field to win their first regular-season away match. And when they beat Gotham FC at Red Bull Arena to close out August, they were two games over .500 and on course for a playoff berth.

Injuries had taken their toll, however. Sarah Gorden tore her ACL before the season started the never took the field. Christen Press, the club’s highest profile signing, tore hers as well and had her season cut short. They dipped into the trade market (allowing for players to be brought in, even if not traded out) and acquired Sydney Leroux from the Orlando Pride, but she too was hampered by injuries down the stretch. Angel City limped to a 1-4-1 finish and missed the playoffs. The worst of the losses was a 3-1 setback against Racing Louisville in the Sept. 25 home finale.

The Wave also opened strong, knocking off the Houston Dash, 1-0 away to open the regular season and then getting a four-goal performance from Morgan in their home-opener against Gotham. The Wave remained stingy in back and Morgan won the Golden Boot with 15 goals. That kept the Wave contending throughout the season and they went to the final weeks in contention for the Shield. They finished up 10-6-6 to set a new women’s soccer standard for a from-scratch expansion team. That was good for a third-place finish and a home playoff game, which they won, 2-1 over the Chicago Red Stars in extra time. The Wave’s fine inaugural season ended a week later in Portland on Crystal Dunn’s stoppage-time strike.

Things were not too bad off the field for the Wave, either. After starting their season at the cozy Torero Stadium, they christened Snapdragon Stadium on Sept. 17 by attracting a sellout crowd of 32,000 and defeating Angel City. Subsequent home matches drew 18,000 and then 26,215 for the playoff match.

Challenge Cup thrills, confuses

For the second straight year, the NWSL Challenge Cup served as the launchpad to the season. The format was tweaked, with the teams falling into three groups of four, and the group stage becoming a double-round robin. The positioning of the event on the calendar inevitably caused some clubs to treat it like a preseason tournament, much to the league’s dismay. There was also a scheduling faux pas that saw the regular season begin after the group stage, followed by a first-ever Challenge Cup semifinal round on Wednesday night and the final on Saturday, May 7 — even though all teams had regular-season matches scheduled for that weekend.

In the end, the Challenge Cup produced some good soccer. The best of the group stage was an extraordinary, 2-2 draw between the North Carolina Courage and Washington Spirit that clinched the East for the Courage and kept the Spirit alive for the wild-card berth. When Angel City upset the Thorns the next day — the first ever win for Angel City — the Spirit were through the back door and into the semifinals. Also that weekend, the Kansas City Current, newly rebranded for the season, beat the Chicago Red Stars in a battle for the Central. OL Reign had less drama, winning the West with 14 points.

In the semifinals, the Spirit and Reign (who played their regular-season opener against each other three days earlier) played to a 0-0 draw before an epic, 10-round penalty shootout that finally ended when Aubrey Kingsbury saved Jess Fishlock’s spot kick to send the Spirit through. The first 14 kicks were all converted before misses in the eighth round and more makes in the ninth.

In Kansas City, the home side played a poor first half and trailed the Courage 2-0. A late goal made it interesting but the Courage advanced safely.

The final pitted the Courage and Spirit, who had drawn twice in the group stage. This one was a tense, ugly affair that saw Sam Staab somehow escape a penalty for her brutal takedown of Kerolin, who had to leave the match injured. And a scary incident late in the match saw Jordan Baggett leave the pitch on a stretcher after an awkward fall that left her in concussion protocol. The NWSL and Courage took heat for the length of time it took the stretcher to arrive on the scene. Television pictures of Spirit players running it out from the far side of the field did not help matters.

In the end, the Courage prevailed 2-1. The winning goal, in the 70th minute, went in the books as an own goal against Taylor Aylmer.

Reign fire salvo in Cascadia rivalry

The regular season saw a variety of storylines at both ends of the table. A few of them played out on the final weekend when the Shield race came down to the Cascadia rivals from Portland and Seattle.

The Thorns went to the final game of the season needing a win away to Gotham to secure the Shield. They scored just before and just after halftime, and then again in the 53rd minute to take a 3-1 lead against a Gotham side who had lost a league-record 12 straight games. Amazingly, Gotham rallied to draw the match 3-3, leaving the door open for the Reign.

Later that night at Lumen Field, Megan Rapinoe delivered an 8th-minute goal against the Orlando Pride, and the Reign poured it on to lead 3-0 at halftime. There were no miracle rallies in store and the Reign celebrated the club’s third Shield, and first since 2015.

The Wave nabbed the third spot and the Houston Dash checked in fourth to reach the playoffs for the first time. The Current and Red Stars filled out the playoff spots, leaving the Challenge Cup finalists on the outside.

It was the Spirit who had the most shocking season. The Challenge Cup final was their first loss of the season, as they had not lost a group-stage match and won their regular-season opener. Few could have imagined that by the time they won their next match, four months would have passed and the relationship with head coach Kris Ward would end in a messy split.

Starting with the May 15 home loss to Angel City, the Spirit found all kinds of ways not to win matches, ultimately going 0-6-10 through the end of August. It was the second-longest winless streak in NWSL history, behind only Sky Blue FC’s 23-game run of futility in 2018. Along the way, an alleged incident at training led to Ward’s dismissal, a stunning fall for the coach who appeared to have been the perfect antidote to Richie Burke just a year earlier.

Gotham’s disappointing year also led to a coaching change with Scott Parkinson being pushed out and Hue Menzies taking over for the final 10 games.

The Pride also missed the playoffs and they too saw their coach leave. Amanda Cromwell was suspended on recommendation of the joint investigative team and later fired after completion of the investigation. Seb Hines took over and has since been named permanent head coach.

Racing Louisville FC also missed the playoffs but the introduction of Savannah DeMelo and Jaelin Howell offer reason for optimism.

Playoff offer more thrills

The 2022 NWSL playoffs saw all four host teams draw exceptional crowds and several of the games come down to the wire. In Houston, the Current prevailed when Kate Del Fava scored in the 10th minute of second-half stoppage time following some wild back and forth that saw both teams nearly take the lead. The Wave made good on their playoff debut, overcoming an early Kailen Sheridan mistake to rally past the Red Stars on Morgan’s goal in extra time.

In the semifinals, the Current ended the Reign’s chance for a double with a 2-0 win. But the moment of the playoffs happened in Portland, when Crystal Dunn scored the winner in stoppage time. It was Dunn’s first goal since giving birth in May and it sent the Thorns to the NWSL Championship.

The NWSL Championship in Washington, D.C., was a grand celebration of the NWSL’s 10th season. Unfortunately, an early Thorns goal took much of the starch out of the match and they won handily, 2-0 over the Current. Sophia Smith scored the opener and was named MVP, making her the first player to be regular-season and NWSL Championship MVP in the same year.

Individual highs

Morgan’s Golden Boot and Smith’s MVP were just a few of the individual highlights from 2022. No. 1 draft pick Naomi Girma was somewhere between steady and spectacular in central defense for the Wave, taking down Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year as well as garnering MVP support. The year also ended with Girma firmly in the mix to start for the United States at next summer’s World Cup. Kailen Sheridan won Goalkeeper of the Year honors after being traded from Gotham to the Wave.

Mallory Pugh was, at times, unstoppable for the Red Stars even though she missed time after being concussed by a teammate’s free kick. In her regular-season debut, Pugh became the first player in league history to come off the bench to score twice with an assist. In August, she chipped in a two-goal-two-assist performance.

Other players bid goodbye. Rachel Daly left the Dash to join England for the Euros. She did not come back a champion, but that was because Daly joined Aston Villa after helping the Three Lionesses to a popular triumph in Europe. Chicago Red Stars midfielder Sarah Woldmoe announced her retirement after sitting out the season on maternity leave.

On the coaching front, Casey Stoney was Coach of the Year, and Juan Carlos Amoros did well enough in his interim role at the Dash that Gotham poached him as their new manager. And Sam Laity’s decade as a deputy with the Reign finally paid off when he landed the Dash job for 2023. Mark Parsons, a late 2021 defector from NWSL for a brief stint in charge of the Netherlands, returned to take the Spirit job where he made his bones from 2013-2015.

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