2021 NWSL awards picks: MVP case for Chicago Red Stars’ Mallory Pugh; give Trinity Rodman Rookie of Year; more


The 2021 National Women’s Soccer League playoffs are in full swing and end-of-season award nominees have been finalized for all four major categories: MVP, Coach of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Defender of the Year.

A mix of players, owners, general managers, coaches, and media members voted in a preliminary round on the individual awards to determine the short list of nominees. The preliminary round used a weighted scale, broken down by players (50%), owners/GMs/coaches (25%) and media (25%), with the final round of voting The using a weighted scale of players (50%), owners/GMs/coaches (20%), media (20%) and fans (10%).

In a year where with constant coaching changes, an Olympic stretch, and lack of finishing in the final third, let’s take a look at the nominees, including my case for each winner.

Coach of the Year

Nominees: Mark Parsons (Portland Thorns FC), Laura Harvey (OL Reign), and Scott Parkinson (NJ/NY Gotham) 

My pick: Mark Parsons

Why: Harvey and Parkinson have impressive cases, but both had limited time with their respective clubs. Harvey is in the midst of a remarkable run with OL Reign after taking over in July. Scott Parkinson managed to get Gotham FC into the quarterfinals after just a third of the season at helm. You could even argue that Parkinson’s predecessor Freya Coombe deserves more love for her runner-up finish in the 2021 Challenge Cup and her 5-6-3 record to start the season.

Parsons, who’s taking the Netherlands women’s national team job at season’s end, managed to revamp his roster after a mass exodus of players before the 2020 season was derailed by the ongoing pandemic. The Challenge Cup and a successful Fall Series that year set the blueprint for a dominant 2021 where his team managed to snag every trophy available (Women’s International Champions Cup, Challenge Cup, NWSL Shield) 

In between all the winning, Parson’s squad never truly faltered in stretches of matches that other clubs struggled in. The utilization of Angela Salem and Rocky Rodriguez in the midfield has been integral to the Thorns’ success, and the continued development of Bella Bixby, Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver has earned them recent call ups to the U.S. national team.

The Thorns also showed off their depth, introducing 15-year-old Oliva Moultrie into the fold, and strung together a seven-game unbeaten run while their Canadian and U.S. teammates were off competing in the Olympics. As those players returned, the team went on to pad their first place lead and are now preparing to host a semifinal as the top seed. 

Rookie of the Year

Nominees: Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC), Victoria Pickett (Kansas City Current), Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)

My pick: Trinity Rodman

Why: The 19-year-old attacker out of Washington State played 23 games (20 starts) and became a staple in the offense alongside Ashley Sanchez and Ashley Hatch.

Rodman is tied for the league-lead in assists (six) and her six goals have all come from inside of the box — a reflection of her technical ability on the ball and confidence to take on veteran defenders. She is the team leader in expected assists (3.70) and second on the team in expected goals (eight).

Her goal in during the final match of the regular season proved to be the determining factor in clinching a home playoff, securing playoff spots for the North Carolina Courage and Gotham FC and eliminating the Houston Dash from playoff contention.

Defender of the Year

Nominees: Alana Cook (OL Reign), Caprice Dydasco (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Sarah Gorden (Chicago Red Stars), Emily Menges (Portland Thorns FC), Carson Pickett (North Carolina Courage)

My pick: Sarah Gorden

Why: Gorden’s evolution is real as she’s climbed up the ranks since being drafted out of DePaul in 2016. Since then, she’s gone from being a bench player to an essential starter and the heart and soul of Chicago’s backline, logging every minute of every regular-season match, earning Iron Women honors by the club. 

This Chicago side has a knack for putting together strong defensive performances with stingy scorelines, as it’s in the midst of a four-game unbeaten run dating back to the regular season, with only one goal conceded over that span, and now two wins away from hoisting the championship trophy.

Gorden initially trained to play as outside back before the season, but ultimately shifted into the starting right centerback role. Gorden was the constant rock of that defense as the Red Stars rotated between Kayla Sharples and Tierna Davidson as her centerback partner.

Gorden’s leadership on and off the pitch has played a big role, especially during some inconsistent stretches of the season. Her 201 recoveries ranked first in the league among all centerbacks.

Her ability to cover ground and disrupt any rhythm from her opposition has been monumental for a Chicago team that managed a rare streak of five own goals over a three-game stretch. Gorden has often been the sole defender in open space on corner kicks due to her ability to run down counter attacks, which has allowed Chicago’s taller defenders to get involved on set-piece opportunities. Her 60.9 tackle success rate allows her to take on attackers one on one, and has become a factor to scout for opposing teams. 

MVP

Nominees: Jessica Fishlock (OL Reign), Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit), Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars), Margaret Purce (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Angela Salem (Portland Thorns FC)

My pick: Mallory Pugh

Why: Traditionally, NWSL voters tend to lean on the golden boot winner for MVP. In the previous seven regular seasons, only once have we seen the top scorer not win the prize. I recently explained why there’s a strong possibility we could see another non-top scorer take home MVP honors this year due to the lack of quality finishing in the final third in the first full season since 2019.

I don’t have any beef with the five candidates announced, but I do think it’s somewhat disappointing to not see Gotham FC defender Caprice Dydasco and Chicago defender Sarah Gorden earn any MVP praise in a year where scoring has been down (2.32 goals per game in 2021 compared to 2.61 in 2019) 

You need to take a few things into consideration when picking an MVP. The player must play an integral part of the team, so if you were to remove them from roster, the remainder of the team would falter in their absence. Secondly, the overall form, appearances play a factor, along with my hypothetical: Would a non-playoff team ever make a push for your services. All current 2021 MVP candidates meet my criteria. 

There are MVP candidates that would vastly improve a number of the teams currently watching the playoffs from home, including experienced midfielders Fishlock and Salem. However, Pugh is my lock for MVP for all the above mentioned, especially as she became a part of a Red Stars team that is still looking for production in the final third. 

Chicago has historically been a top-tier team and she quickly become a factor as soon as she joined the club via trade nearly a year ago. Pugh, who made her NWSL debut in the middle of the 2017, is in the midst of her first healthy season and has been reqarded with her first career NWSL playoff appearance.

Pugh’s skill on the ball and her ability to stretch backlines has been a big factor for Chicago’s late-season success. She’s made a career-high 23 starts for the team over 24 appearances and leads the team in expected assists with 5.46. He ability to win the ball has led to 136 recoveries, the most of any forward on the team this year.

She scored four goals and recorded four assists during the regular season, and scored her fifth this year during the quarterfinal against Gotham FC, which proved to be the game-winner.

Best XI and Second XI

Annually, there are best XI and second XI squads that are awarded, and perhaps and opportunity to see players in a spot of recognition that they perhaps didn’t see within the individual awards. Here’s who I think should make the cut for the best XI and second XI.

Best XI: Casey Murphy; Caprice Dydasco, Sarah Gorden, Emily Menges, Meghan Klingenberg; Angela Salem, Jess Fishlock, Morgan Gautrat, Mallory Pugh, Ashley Hatch, Margaret Purce

Second XI: Aubrey Bledsoe; Carson Pickett, Katie Naughton, Alana Cook, Sofia Huerta; Andi Sullivan, Sarah Woldmoe, Dzsenifer  Marozsan; Ifeoma Onumonu, Eugenie Le Sommer, Trinity Rodman





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