NWSL MVP Race: Assessing the League’s Best Players

Sophia Smith of the Portland Thorns

Stephanie Insixiengmay takes a look at the players nominated for NWSL’s individual award and explains what makes them outstanding

The NWSL season is winding to a close and while many players have impressed in the league, five stand out above the rest. These have been shortlisted by the NWSL for their MVP award. The five players are: Alex Morgan, Naomi Girma, Sophia Smith, Debinha, and Mallory Pugh. Here’s a closer look at all five candidates and the stats behind their stellar performances.

Alex Morgan

The San Diego Wave forward ended the season as the 2022 Golden Boot winner having scored 15 goals during the regular season. While it might be easy to classify Morgan as a simple goalscorer, her playing style is a lot more complex than that. The forward is good at running into space, finding space between the lines, and often puts herself on the line for her team. The player has also shown a willingness to drop deep and to help her team press when need be. It’s a testament to her selflessness that she’s willing to do so.

As per Statsbomb, Morgan leads the club in several key areas. One of them is in terms of scoring contributions (14). This metric combines non-penalty goals and assists and measures a player’s goal contribution for the team. Morgan also leads the team in shots (64) and it has led to her scoring 16 goals. Morgan is also disciplined enough to not take too many touches before getting a shot off.

This data radar from Statsbomb corroborates this, as it shows her taking a high volume of shots (3.27) while not taking too many touches beforehand (6%).

Morgan is classified as a ‘goalscoring’ striker by TransferLab. This is the player’s strongest position and the numbers confirm this. The forward has high scores in several key areas, including for expected goals in open play and quality finishes (85% and 90% respectively). One area where she excels, however, is for touches in the box (96%). The forward currently has 155 in the penalty area, which is the most for any player on Wave FC. She is also exceptional in the air, with a 100% for aerial wins.

Morgan compared with all NWSL strikers over the last 12 months

If Morgan does have any weaknesses, it is in terms of pass accuracy. She only has a 14% adjusted pass accuracy rate, compared with other NWSL strikers, which is the lowest among the five MVP candidates. There are several reasons for this but the most obvious are that she is frequently marked by the opposition while also constantly probing their backline for scoring opportunities (as is shown by her high rating for touches in the box). It is also worth noting that Alex contributes to the Wave’s build-up play in other ways, as she is third on the team for key passes (22). What this means is that she’s generated passes that have led to scoring opportunities for her teammates. Two of those key passes have resulted in assists and Transferlab has given her an 41% rating for expected assists.

The Wave forward was the fulcrum of her team’s attack and played a large part in the team’s success this year. San Diego broke several records, including breaking the league’s attendance records twice, and was also the first expansion team to make the playoffs in their first season. It’s safe to say that the team wouldn’t have accomplished all these things had they not been spearheaded by their talismanic captain.

Sophia Smith

Sophia Smith is the only MVP candidate who is still playing in the postseason. The forward’s team, the Portland Thorns, defeated the San Diego Wave by a score of 2-1 during the semifinals of the NWSL’s playoffs. Smith played a vital part in her team’s victory as she had five shots and 16 touches inside the box, per Statsbomb. The Thorns player is a veritable Swiss army knife with a wide array of skills. She is, first and foremost, an excellent dribbler of the ball, perhaps the best in the entire league. 

This data radar from Statsbomb confirms that Smith is not only an excellent dribbler but that she uses the weapons in her arsenal to create scoring opportunities for herself. Smith has fired off a total of 98 shots for the Thorns, with 14 of them resulting in goals. 

Most of Smith’s goals come from counter attacks, as Portland are a quick, transitional team who can move the ball up the pitch quickly. Smith is also an ambidextrous shooter, capable of scoring with her right or left foot. Here, she scores a goal with her left.

One should not, however, be led to believe that Smith is a selfish player. The prolific forward has created 24 chances for her team and has a total of three assists this year. TransferLab has also given her a 95% rating expected assists metric. Smith is the top 5% of NWSL players for seven metrics in the ‘all-round striker’ profile, which is a testament to what an excellent player she is.

Smith compared with all NWSL strikers over the last 12 months

If the prolific striker does have any weaknesses, however, it’s in terms of her aerial abilities. Smith’s lowest ratings are for headers (20%) and her ability to win aerial duels (8%). Every Achilles has their weakness and this would be Smith’s heel. Nevertheless, one gets the sense that this is something that can be improved over time. Smith is still an incredibly talented, well-rounded player and both Portland and the USA’s future are bright with the likes of her leading the way forward.

Naomi Girma

We’ve already written about Naomi Girma and explained why she is such an incredible player. The defender is worthy of every single superlative you can think of. Through a combination of maturity, malleability, intelligence, and a good work ethic, Girma has been able to quickly adjust to life as a professional. Being incredibly talented doesn’t hurt either. If fellow MVP nominee, Alex Morgan, is the fulcrum of the Wave’s attack, then Naomi is the beating heart of their defence.

The centre back has put up impressive numbers this season, making 57 interceptions, 112 clearances, and 39 tackles, and has only been dribbled past three times (Statsbomb). TransferLab confirms that she’s a well-rounded centre-back, as she has high ratings in several key metrics, with 73% rating for progressive long passing, 91% for aerials, and 100% for interceptions, showing her proactivity in defence.

Girma compared with all NWSL centre backs over the last 12 months

The centre-back has put on several monumental performances this season, including in the Wave’s semifinal match against Portland. Girma engaged in a 90-minute jousting match with her former Stanford teammate, Sophia Smith, and emerged the victor in several of their battles. Here she is not only keeping pace with Smith, but also winning the ball off her, and having a foul called against the forward.

It takes a very skilled person to pull off something like this and Girma is exactly that. Indeed, she has been nominated for not one, or two, but three awards this season. While she might have three chances to win, the odds might be against her for the league’s MVP award.

For starters, defenders don’t normally win awards like this. All the previous winners of the title have been either forwards or midfielders, as voters tend to favor goal-scorers, however flawed that logic may be. Crystal Dunn (2015) might be the exception, though she was converted from her role as a midfielder to a fullback for the US national team, and still plays in the midfield for Portland.

To draw a comparison from the international stage, the last time a defender won the Ballon d’Or was when Fabio Cannavaro received it back in 2006. The Italy captain had to put on a monumental performance for his country as he led them to victory at the FIFA World Cup before capturing the prestigious prize. No defender has won the top individual prize in the men’s game since then.

Similarly, it would probably take a remarkable set of circumstances for Girma to win the MVP award. However, even if she doesn’t win that particular honor, she is nominated for at least two others. The defender has a strong case for both Rookie of The Year and Defender of The Year and might find consolation in winning either of those two awards, or even both.

Either way, it’s been a stellar debut season for Naomi and her star can only get brighter from here.


There is a temptation to label Debinha’s playing style as simply being that of ‘jogo bonito’. What most people don’t take into account, however, is the knowledge and discipline it takes to make this beautiful style of play work. It requires a good work-ethic, excellent technical ability, innate positional awareness, and the smarts to pull this off.

Debinha has all of this in spades. The winger has completed 32 successful dribbles this year and has used her ability to score spectacular goals such as this one.

Overall, Debinha has scored 12 goals this season and she’s scored them by playing so beautifully. She also has the ability to break the lines with her passes and has also generated 28 scoring chances for her team. The Brazilian has also registered four assists this season.

TransferLab’s ‘all-round winger’ profile shows what a well-rounded, talented player Debinha is. Nearly all of her metrics put her in the top 10% of players in her position in the league, with only forward passes received, adjusted pass accuracy, and dribbles dropping below that (very high) threshold.

Debinha compared with all NWSL forwards over the last 12 months

The 5’2 dynamo is a force to be reckoned with and nearly carried her team into the playoffs. And had they not missed the postseason, then Debinha would have had a stronger case for the MVP award. 

Mallory Pugh

Mal Pugh has been the driving force behind the Chicago Red Stars’ offense this season. The forward has scored a total of 11 goals for her team. She also has six assists, which is the most out of all five MVP nominees.

Here she is sending in an inswinger which results in a goal for the Red Stars.

As this data radar from Statsbomb shows, Pugh takes a lot of shots for the team (63 in total).

The forward has created a lot of chances for the team too (36 in total). Overall, Pugh is in the top ten in terms of chances created by players in the league.

As per TransferLab, Pugh also has the highest pass accuracy among the five MVP nominees, with her score being in the 81% range. The Colorado native has high marks across the board, including for expected goals from open play (93%) and touches in the box (100%). What this tells us is that Pugh is just as good at creating chances as she is at getting into dangerous areas and scoring from them.

Pugh compared with all NWSL forwards over the last 12 months

One of the forward’s few weaknesses is the quality of the through balls she passes, as she only has a 21% rating for them. However, that does little to diminish her overall quality.

Pugh helped to propel the Red Stars into the postseason, where they fell in the quarterfinals to San Diego. Stellar performances from two of her fellow nominees, Morgan and Girma, helped seal her team’s fate.

Despite her team’s early postseason exit, Pugh is still one of the best players in the league. The forward is only 24-years-old, which means that she’ll have plenty of time to eventually win the league’s MVP award and perhaps win a championship in the process.

Header image copyright: Imago/Craig Mitchelldyer

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