Analysis

Here is FFT's totally not premature NWSL awards ballot

Last season's NWSL awards were dominated by uncertainty. This year, the stars are out once again.

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ISI Photos-Trask Smith
ISI Photos-Trask Smith

Twelve games are barely enough time to sift good performances from bad, let alone best from second best. Still, these debates have to start somewhere. Who is the NWSL’s Most Valuable Player? Its best coach, this season? Its best rookie, defender and goalkeeper?

In a short, 24-game season, there’s a risk these debates will start too late. That’s what happened last year, when a crammed field of MVP candidates failed to sort itself out by season’s end. There’s never enough debate about defender or goalkeeper of the year, while last season, a lack of standout rookies left us in limbo come the final weekend.

This year, let’s get a head start. Let’s start thinking about the NWSL awards now, so we have plenty of time to tell each other how wrong we all are. Here’s how FourFourTwo sees the top three for each major NWSL award, as of this season’s halfway mark:

Rookie of the Year

After the season’s first month, this award looked locked up. Rose Lavelle not only won April’s Rookie of the Year honor, but was also voted the league’s Player of the Month. Already a U.S. international, and only four months removed from being the college draft’s first overall pick, Lavelle’s Rookie of the Year honor felt inevitable.

Two months later, and Lavelle is hurt. And that comes after her dip in form in May. Now, three others have passed the Boston Breaker on our early ballot:

1. Kailen Sheridan, Sky Blue FC

Christy Holly and Sky Blue knew, going into January’s draft, that they wanted Sheridan. With most teams set at goalkeeper, the Clemson product fell to the third round, making her the draft’s biggest steal. Also in contention for Goalkeeper of the Year, the Canadian international is having the league’s best rookie season since Erika Tymrak scored seven goals for FC Kansas City in 2013.

2. Kristen McNabb, Seattle Reign FC

A fourth-round pick come good, McNabb has displaced Rachel Corsie as Laura Harvey’s first choice in the Reign’s central defense. Despite playing next to last year’s Defender of the Year, Lauren Barnes, McNabb has been the best player in Seattle’s back five, her ball-winning proving consistency for a unit no longer protected by Keelin Winters. She’s only made seven starts, so far, but the former Virginia Cavalier has still done enough to claim this spot.

3. Christina Gibbons, FC Kansas City

Like Lavelle, Gibbons has cooled after a hot start, one that hinted she could be one of the league’s best fullbacks this season. That bar may be too high, for now, but the former Duke standout has still reinforced the idea that she has a big senior U.S. national team future. Her decision-making and confidence on the ball are already better than most fullbacks in the NWSL.

Keep an eye on: Lavelle, Sky Blue’s Mandy Freeman, Washington’s Mallory Pugh and North Carolina’s Ashley Hatch

Coach of the Year

ISI Photos-Daniel Bartel

ISI Photos-Daniel Bartel

This award typically goes to the coach whose team most exceeded preseason expectations, a fine exercise in confirmation bias. Those preseason evaluations couldn’t be wrong, could they? Of course not!

Let’s try to get beyond that fallacy and look at some more meaningful marks. For example, through injuries, transfers and retirements, we know a little about challenges each coach faced. And through each player’s history, we have some idea of what to expect from each talent on a coach’s roster. We also know, through actually watching the games, where coaches are trying new ideas, as well as when those ideas are working.

Let’s see how well they’re getting the most out of each player, and let’s look for the coaches who’ve made the best adjustments. Let’s try to avoid our preconceived notions.

1. Laura Harvey, Seattle Reign FC

Seattle came into the year having lost Kim Little, Keelin Winters, Hope Solo and Manon Melis, four starters from the Reign’s first-choice XI last season. Credit to Seattle’s general manager, one Laura Harvey: The team’s roster doesn’t lack talent. But it’s another thing to weave those pieces together on the field. After finishing in fifth place in 2016, Harvey has her team in third, a place that also reflects the tactical adjustments she’s had to make since last season.

2. Rory Dames, Chicago Red Stars

The Red Stars have another roster that doesn’t lack for talent, something that would normally hurt a coach in these discussions. But thanks to two small tweaks by Dames early this season, we’ve been able to see both new ideas and player development.

In moving Julie Ertz from central defense to midfield, Dames has installed the league’s fiercest shield, while solidifying a two-front setup – with Sofia Huerta complementing Christen Press – that gives the attack more room to grow. Though that attack still needs to create more goals, moving Ertz has made an already-stingy team even stronger.

3. Paul Riley, North Carolina Courage

ISI Photos-Mike Gridley

ISI Photos-Mike Gridley

The Courage is yet another stacked team, but Riley deserves credit for successfully moving Abby Erceg to defense, knowing McCall Zerboni could handle the job beside Samantha Mewis in midfield. Riley’s also giving his team an option besides playing last year’s 4-4-2, toying with a 3-5-2 formation that will prevent the Courage from being stymied, as it was for most of last year’s final, despite prevailing on penalty kicks. All this, and North Carolina has been the season’s best team through 12 games.

Keep an eye on: Christy Holly, Sky Blue; Tom Sermanni, Orlando

NEXT: Top goalkeeper, defender and the leader for MVP