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Morgan Weaver may be the most underrated player in the NWSL right now

Portland Thorns FC forward Morgan Weaver (22) controls the ball during the first half against New Jersey/New York Gotham FC at Providence Park.
Photo Copyright Troy Wayrynen for USA TODAY Sports

If I told you there was a winger in the NWSL who did the following in a season, what would you say about them? 

Goals + Assists11t-4th
Non-penalty Goals + Assists11t-2nd
AVG Non-penalty xG + xAssists/90**0.602nd
Net Goals Added***3.53rd
*Ranked among 124 outfield players who logged at least 1,000 minutes in the 2023 NWSL regular season.
**Averaged from four different npxG and xAssists models from FBRef, American Soccer Analysis, Opta Analyst, and Wyscout.
***A possession value model from American Soccer Analysis that calculates the value of both on-ball and off-ball actions, measured against positional average.

Is this a very good player? Is this an elite player? Is this an MVP candidate? It seems clear to me that the first option doesn’t cut it. What we are left with is a clear recipient of some accolade—a selection for the end-of-the-year Second XI, minimum. 

Well, not even that is coming to Morgan Weaver. After losing a heartbreaking playoff semifinal to Gotham in Portland over the weekend, the Thorns attacker has now been snubbed for both NWSL Best XI rosters. 

Never mind that she was also not selected as an MVP finalist; ignore the paltry two caps for the U.S. Women’s National Team, and no call-ups to any camps in nearly two years; forget the snubbing of a place on the Best XI. Weaver has built a resume that cries out for some recognition, and after completing the best season of her nascent career, that recognition has yet to fully arrive. 

It’s not that Weaver is entirely unheralded. Those who know the league understand her quality. Thorns fans most certainly do. 

The goal celebration, in front of an ecstatic sellout crowd for one of the biggest derbies in American soccer, speaks for itself. What might be less-remarked-upon is the sheer quality of the goal itself. It’s a poacher’s feast, Weaver latching onto a flick-on within the six-yard box that takes a sneaky amount of skill to get in that position in the first place. Not every striker can peel off Emily Sonnett to get enough separation for what is essentially an open look at goal. Weaver can. 

She does it a lot. Weaver was one of the most prolific attackers in the NWSL this season. Take away the penalties used to inflate the goal figures from Debinha, Alex Morgan and Ashley Hatch, and suddenly Weaver is left standing astride Kerolin in total goals and assists, only Sophia Smith ahead of them. There’s no fancy math that needs to go into it, no super-advanced analytical model that is required to sweep away the rough from this diamond. All we need to do is take away the penalties. Which makes Weaver’s snub all the more maddening. 

One might note that the Thorns weren’t built around Weaver, and therefore she didn’t contribute the same scale of value to her team as Kerolin did to hers, or perhaps Lynn Williams did to Gotham, or Alex Morgan did to San Diego. Weaver can’t help who her teammates are, though, can she? To “only” contribute to 28% of your team’s non-penalty goals doesn’t seem like it should be held against you. It could be just as easily argued that a team’s reliance on a single player to score is actually an indictment of their attack, not a virtue of it. North Carolina learned that lesson the hard way when Kerolin tore her ACL and was absent from their playoff loss to Gotham in the quarterfinals. 

If going solo is what is required for awards recognition, then Weaver probably isn’t well served playing next to Smith. But the reason the Thorns had the most dangerous attack in the whole league is not because Weaver played alongside Smith; it’s because Smith got to play alongside Weaver. Toss in Crystal Dunn, Olivia Moultrie, Hina Sugita, and Christine Sinclair, and everyone got to share the spoils. The Thorns offense would have still been great were it solely Smith leading the line. With Weaver, it was unparalleled. 

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Weaver could also be “the guy” when called upon to play hero ball. Smith logged 105 of a possible 810 normal-time minutes in the final nine games of the regular season. Weaver stepped up in her absence, and her three goals and one assist in that timeframe accounted for 44% of the Thorns’ scoring. Only Kerolin beat her in those nine games across the league, scoring or assisting half of the Courage’s goals. If that isn’t putting a team on your back, I don’t know what qualifies. And if you feel like the Thorns weren’t scoring very much in that time, and thus Weaver’s scoring contribution was inflated – well, I point you back to Kerolin and North Carolina, who scored 15 fewer goals than the Thorns across the regular season, helping to boost Kerolin’s contribution percentage. 

Yet another strike against Weaver in the past is her inability to be 90-minute match fit. She rarely made it past the 60th minute in her first two seasons. This year, however, Weaver started every single regular season and playoff game for the Thorns and averaged 81 normal-time minutes per appearance. You can’t knock her for her work rate, something Thorns head coach Mike Norris singled out for praise earlier in the year.

Now let us put Weaver’s 2023 performance in context with her competition. Nobody would argue against the overwhelming talent of her fellow wingers, and Kerolin is a deserving MVP finalist. Trinity Rodman’s skills speak for themselves. 

But Weaver is hanging in right there with them.

Graphic courtesy of ALPHONSO: The DAVIES Database

We can put Weaver’s talents in a global context, too. DAVIES is a system that converts FBRef stats to possession values, essentially back-dooring public data into a more sophisticated and comprehensive model like Goals Added. 192 forwards logged at least 1,000 normal-time, regular-season minutes in the 2022-23 and 2023 seasons across the big 6 leagues in the world. Going by DAVIES’ xGoalsAdded per 90 metric, Weaver slots in at 32nd. That ranking would undoubtedly move up if quality-of-opposition and league-strength adjustments were made, thus bringing down the padded numbers of Europe’s heavyweights. For Weaver to rank that highly even with that barrier should speak volumes. 

Weaver’s absence from even the NWSL Second XI is nothing short of perplexing, particularly when viewed through the prism of these statistical breakdowns. The only other player who could enter this conversation is Adriana of the Orlando Pride, and at least she got to start for a World Cup contender this summer. Weaver stayed in Portland all year, hustling up and down the flank, making opposing fullbacks sweat, dropping driven crosses and cutbacks on a dime for her teammates, and rifling shots into the back of goal herself. She may not be back in the NWSL Championship this season, but she earned her spot as one of the best players in the league. Too bad nobody thought to train the spotlight on her for a change. 

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